Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the Biden administration will be announcing new steps on agriculture and climate “very, very shortly” and also will start filling the department’s state-level leadership positions within days.

Speaking Monday to the annual Ag Outlook Forum in Kansas City, Missouri, sponsored by Agri-Pulse and the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City, Vilsack provided no details about the department’s coming announcements on climate policy, but he said it would be clear that the administration has paid attention to concerns expressed by the ag industry.

“We've listened very, very carefully on this issue of climate, and we've heard some really good advice from farmers and ranchers and those who represent farmers and ranchers on how best a structured approach would be most accepted,” Vilsack said.

In May, USDA issued a progress report on its climate strategy that focused on measuring the impact of climate-friendly practices, taking steps to facilitate private carbon markets and ensuring all farmers can benefit financially from addressing climate change.

The plan suggested USDA could help support carbon credit prices but emphasized the use of private markets to compensate farmers for carbon-conserving practices.

Ahead of the report’s release, many farm and environmental groups filed comments that called on USDA to prioritize climate change in conservation programs and to consider changes to crop insurance that would promote the use of cover crops and other carbon-conserving practices.

Filling senior-level positions at USDA continues to be a challenge for Vilsack and he looks to carry out President Joe Biden’s policy priorities.

Vilsack said announcements about a “significant number” of state-level appointments would start in “late September and into October.” The posts include state leaders for Farm Service Agency and Rural Development offices.

He also said the White House is close to nominating someone to be undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs. So far, the Senate has confirmed just one of Biden’s nominees for undersecretary positions at USDA - Jenny Lester Moffitt, the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs. Aside from Vilsack and Moffitt, two other USDA officials - Deputy Ag Secretary Jewel Bronaugh and General Counsel Janie Simms Hipp - have also advanced through the process.

Vilsack indicated the pace of nominations and appointments has been slowed by what he described as the administration’s ethical standards. “When you have a high ethics standard sometimes it disqualifies people from participating,” he said.

Vilsack didn’t provide any details of the ethical issues, but prospective nominees and appointees are sometimes required to separate themselves from business interests that pose a conflict of interest.

Vilsack, who had just returned from meetings in Italy with his G20 counterparts, also said he had “solid” conversations with Brazil’s agriculture minister about countering the European Union’s push to get other nations to adopt its “Farm to Fork strategy” for reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.

Addressing the Kansas City forum virtually, Vilsack assured the audience of Midwest agribusiness leaders that the Biden administration is pushing to enlist other countries in a “productivity” coalition that will support the use of technology in agriculture. He said that 10 to 15 countries have indicated an interest so far.

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He said he expected the EU to pressure other countries to accept its Farm to Fork strategy on the basis “that there is basically a single way of doing this.” The EU has set goals of cutting pesticide use in half and reducing fertilizer usage by 20%.

He said the United States lacks the relationships with African countries that the EU has, but suggested a trade deal with Kenya could help the U.S. to advance its priorities.

Vilsack also insisted Monday that the administration supports a broad approach to providing feedstocks for sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. A package of green energy incentives approved by the House Ways and Means Committee last week would create a new tax credit for SAF but most if not all domestic farm commodities would be eligible as SAF feedstocks.

He said demand for SAF would be far larger than the airline industry’s current goal to use 3 billion gallons a year by 2030. “I think it's likely that we're going to continue to see a real push to ultimately develop … a bio-based aviation fuel that meets the entire need for the aviation industry, which is about 35 billion gallons,” he said.

Despite the administration's push for electric vehicle subsidies, Vilsack said there would be strong, long-term demand for ethanol because of increased fuel economy standards. “The only way you get those higher standards is through higher octane, and you only get that higher octane is through biofuels,” he said.

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