WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2015 - In an unusual appearance before the European Parliament, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Obama administration is committed to reducing carbon emissions and the use of antibiotics in agriculture. In an extensive question-and-answer session with the Parliament’s agriculture committee, Vilsack also defended U.S. biotech labeling policy and acknowledged that the farm issues in the U.S.-EU trade negotiations are likely to go down to the wire.

Vilsack spoke for about 15 minutes and then spent the rest of a nearly two-hour appearance in Brussels Tuesday fielding dozens of questions from the committee members, many of whom seemed deeply skeptical of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations and U.S. agriculture generally. “We see trade agreements as providing stabilization for crop prices and therefore for farm income,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack, who is in Paris today for the international climate conference, said the administration believes U.S. farmers can double the rate of reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture “with a voluntary, incentive-based system.” This was a reference to a goal he outlined in April to increase carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons annually by 2025 through various conservation practices, including planting cover crops and perennial forages. (At 9:30 EST, USDA will release a new report, titled Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System, which outlines impacts of climate change on global food security, including food availability, access, utilization, and stability. Look for our coverage on www.Agri-Pulse.com )

Vilsack also defended U.S. farmers’ adoption of technology, particularly precision agriculture, which he said was better protecting “scarce water resources.”

On other issues:

  • He rejected suggestions by some committee members that the U.S. require labeling of biotech foods. One committee member told Vilsack scientists were warning Europeans that “threats related to GMO crops are very serious.” Vilsack outlined the congressional effort to mandate the disclosure of biotech ingredients through bar codes rather than requiring the information on product labels. “If consumers want that information then we have to figure out a way to provide it to them in a way that doesn’t send the wrong message about a product… I think eventually we’re going to get to that kind of labeling system.”
  • He suggested issues such as geographic indications (GIs) and food safety standards could be resolved if U.S. and EU negotiators would agree on broad goals and allow each side different ways to address them. “It’s not really ultimately about getting identical systems. It’s about getting equivalent systems. We can get to the same place using different roads and routes as long as the goal is the same.” He said, for example, that allowing the use of trademarks could address the EU’s effort to protect regional product names through the use of GIs.
  • He said the Obama administration recognizes that the use of antibiotics in agriculture “is a problem,” adding: “We are in the process of developing a system under which we’re reducing significantly the level of antibiotics being used in livestock.”

The EU committee members included several members of the European United Left as well as more moderate Christian Democrats, but even the latter expressed concern that U.S. farmers would get the better end of the trade negotiations.

“Your basic approach is a positive approach,” a Dutch Christian Democrat, Annie Schreijer-Pierik, told Vilsack. “When I hear you care about the future of family-run companies in the U.S. and Europe, that’s something I welcome. It’s very different from what we hear from Asia and other countries and blocs,” she said. Another Christian Democrat, Franc Bogovic of Slovenia, warned Vilsack that European producers were very concerned about the TTIP negotiations and asked, “Can we still defend the European farmers if we sign this agreement?”

James Nicholson, a British member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, said farmers on both sides of the Atlantic could potentially benefit from the deal but he also said negotiators “may have to park some of the more contentious issues.” He didn’t say which ones should be punted but that would almost certainly include the dispute over GIs.

Vilsack clearly rejected that idea but he repeatedly acknowledged that the differences would be hard to resolve, noting that dairy was the last issue settled in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. “We’ll probably be talking about a number of ag issues for a considerable period of time,” he said.

Many of the committee members were just curious as to how U.S. farmers viewed the changes in the 2014 farm bill. (For the most part, they like them, Vilsack said. He noted one exception -- in dairy, where acceptance of the Margin Protection Program had been sluggish due to regional differences.)

For the most part, Vilsack demonstrated the same mastery of issues and politics that he has shown during multiple congressional appearances. He was only stumped once during the Q&A -- when a United Left member from Ireland, Luke Ming Flanagan, accused him of voting in 2005 to bar restrictions on where biotech crops could be cultivated.

Vilsack pointed out that he was governor of Iowa at the time and then he offered the typical American politician’s defense: He blamed the media.  “I found that newspapers arent always correct about things,” Vilsack said.


For more news, go to: www.Agri-Pulse.com