Vilsack: Different approach needed on next farm bill

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, May 25, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack may have less than a year left in office, but that isn't stopping him from delivering forward-looking remarks to ag stakeholders.

Speaking to members of the Organic Trade Association at the group's policy conference, Vilsack pointed to what he felt was a major flaw in the development of the 2014 Farm Bill: a focus on savings. While he didn't speak against spending fewer taxpayer dollars, he said that starting conversations from a perspective of desired savings can lead to shortchanged programs.

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“That's what happened last time. They started with ‘Well, we have to save $23 billion, how do we do that?'” he said. “When you start with that question, everything else gets constrained . . . It's better to say, ‘What's the need?'”

Vilsack specifically mentioned issues with rural poverty and opioid abuse, a hot button issue in recent months on Capitol Hill.

“Shouldn't we start with the proposition that this is an important place and we need to invest in it?” he added. “We obviously don't have unlimited resources, but when you start with ‘How do I save $23 billion,' you end up shortchanging a lot of good things.

“It's amazing that we got the bill we got,” Vilsack said of the bill President Obama signed into law in February of 2014. “We're making the case we need to have future administrations continue it - in my view - and have future agriculture secretaries understand that their portfolio is much broader and much more diverse than I think folks thought of this department eight years ago.”

In a broad set of remarks, Vilsack also touched on the debate surrounding the labeling of foods containing biotech ingredients. He said he hopes Congress can “see the light” and come up with a solution that he thinks needs to include mandatory disclosure. He says he sees it as USDA's responsibility to “assist in the providing” of that disclosure.

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“So if Congress can't or won't make tough decisions, I have told both Senator (Pat) Roberts and Senator (Debbie) Stabenow I'm happy to make them. But we just need to make them,” Vilsack said. He said that he thinks the discussion over whether or not labeling needs to happen should be over, and that it is “time for action.”

Speaking to reporters after the event, Vilsack also addressed the catfish inspection debate currently before the Senate, saying his “only request to Congress is that they make up their mind” over who should handle the inspections. On Wednesday, the Senate voted 55-43 to remove inspection duties from USDA and return the responsibility to FDA.

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