SAN ANTONIO, Jan. 13, 2014 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he is organizing USDA to be prepared to implement the provisions of a new farm bill as soon as the legislation is passed.
“I want my people to spend time on what makes sense and to create an expectation that this gets done,” Vilsack said today in remarks at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) 95th Annual Convention in San Antonio.
Vilsack said the department will not focus on implementing permanent law – 1949 farm policy that the to which the government must revert if Congress does not pass new five-year legislation, which could result in dramatic increase in the price of milk – until it becomes “obvious” that lawmakers will not find compromise.
Crop revenue protection and the STAX policy for cotton growers are among the programs USDA is preparing to implement, Vilsack said. The department is also getting ready for a consolidation of conservation programs.
The secretary also noted that USDA’s resources for trade promotion expire at the end of January, adding to the urgency for a new farm law.
Vilsack warned that one possible amendment to the farm bill under negotiation may generate multiple legal challenges. The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, would exempt out-of-state producers from meeting varying regulations of the state in which they sell products. Vilsack said the proposal is “complex” and “not well drafted.”
Regarding environmental regulatory issues, Vilsack tried to ease concerns about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its plan to clarify the definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. He said a leaked draft of the proposed rule late last year does not “necessarily reflect the position of the EPA.”
“USDA is engaged with EPA … and is conveying your concerns,” he told the AFBF audience.
In addition to the farm bill, Vilsack said his priorities include immigration reform and new trade agreements.
“I echo [AFBF President] Bob Stallman’s comments about the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” Vislack said, citing the struggles many producers face in finding adequate labor, particularly during harvest. “Agriculture needs it to be done this year.”
He reiterated the administration’s call for “fast-track” Trade Promotion Authority, requiring Congress to consider trade pacts on an up-or down vote, with no amendments. Last week, leaders of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees introduced a trade authority bill that the administration is supporting. Vilsack said TPA would allow negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to proceed with more confidence.
Vilsack also called the controversy over genetically modified (GMO) food labeling “a 20th Century debate about a 21st Century problem.”
“Our concern is that a [GMO] label would provide a message of uncertainty and potential unsafety, even though no studies reflect any safety concerns,” he said.
He reiterated his hope that USDA can work with FDA to devise a national solution, perhaps label for certain food products that can be scanned by mobile phones—a QR code—to provide required information.
“Multiple state initiatives can create confusion in the market,” he said. “There is a better way to address this issue. There may be a way to provide information, but not convey a mistaken concept about the product.”
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