NEW ORLEANS, March 4, 2016 – The Trans-Pacific Partnership will provide substantial benefits to agriculture and needs to be approved by Congress, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told an attentive crowd at the Commodity Classic in New Orleans today.

Vilsack stumped for the agreement in his speech and in remarks to reporters afterwards. Asked about the prospects for passage, given the opposition both of Republican presidential candidates and Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Vilsack said TPP supporters simply have to keep plugging away.

“We have to make the case,” he said, repeating some of the numbers he’s used in previous appearances, such as the $94 billion in lost income that even a one-year delay in approval would cost, according to a study by The Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“There are some who are suggesting we should wait,” he said. However, he said, “There’s no time to waste here because China is trying to negotiate an agreement with its Asian friends.”  

On the hottest issue of the day, GMO labeling, the secretary said the Senate needs to move fast to forestall Vermont’s first-in-the-nation labeling law, due to take effect in July. He again expressed his preference for the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s SmartLabel proposal, which would allow consumers to scan a QR code with their smartphones to get information on packaged food ingredients.

“It gives you the ability to adjust as circumstances change,” Vilsack said. “It needs to be flexible, it needs to be mandatory,” but the food industry and farmers need to educate consumers about the safety of genetically modified organisms.

“I am here to say unequivocally they are safe to consumers,” he told the crowd, eliciting more applause.

To the media, he said, “Here’s the situation — you’ve got to get to 60 votes in the Senate and at the end of the day, I think the way to get 60 votes is to have a label that is required, ... because if you don’t, ... every company could decide for itself,” with confusion being the result.

But Vilsack's remarks also appeared to create confusion, leading many to conclude he was in favor of requiring industry to disclose the presence of GMOs in products on the food packaging itself. Here's what he told the media:
“I think you give industry some time to create the label. You give industry some time to figure out how flexible it needs to be, whether it’s a 1-800 number, whether it’s a website, whether it’s a SmartLabel, or something else. And you use that time to educate people that this is going to be available. This is going to be an opportunity if they’re interested in knowing about the food they are buying, this is the way to do it. I think if you have that kind of system, that’s mandatory, that’s flexible, with time, I think you can get 60 votes to get something through the Senate.” 

On another big issue, the proposed purchase of Syngenta by ChemChina, Vilsack said the deal “raises concerns about whether we will see a synchronized Chinese regulatory system. Will our seed companies be put at a disadvantage?”

Vilsack said he did not want the ChemChina deal to translate into a “home field advantage” for China, and expressed concerns about the Chinese way of making decisions. “Right now . . . there’s no predictability to what they do.”

Asked about problems in cotton country, Vilsack reiterated his belief that he does not have the authority to designate cottonseed as an oilseed in order to be considered for farm payments. But he did say he had spoken recently with cotton industry officials and said USDA would be meeting with them to work on a cost-share program for ginning.

In general, when reporters asked about low commodity prices and farmers’ resulting struggles,Vilsack accentuated the positive. Debt-to-asset ratios are hovering around 13 percent, he said, far below the level of 22-23 percent during the farm crisis of the 1980s.

“I’m not going to suggest that the sky’s falling because I don’t think it is,” he said.

“I think there’s an issue with cash rents,” he said, offering a personal take on the subject. He noted that he spoke with his own farm manager recently and said rents needed to be adjusted down. “That’s okay because it’s a partnership, and that’s the way it ought to be,” he said.

Vilsack also shared personal memories with the audience.

Some of those had his farm audience laughing, as when he recounted his experience as a young lawyer in Iowa, and farmers would come into his office “with a grocery sack full of records, a calendar or two with numbers written on it, and they’d dump the papers on my desk, tell me to calculate their taxes, make sure they didn’t have to pay more than they absolutely owed, and don’t charge me more than 25 bucks.”

He shared personal history. “I started out life in an orphanage in Pittsburgh,” he said. “My life could’ve gone a lot of different ways.” He was adopted by a family, but his mother struggled with addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs.

“But through her faith and her community of support and recovery, she turned her life around,” he said. “She taught me a very, very valuable lesson: never to give up on anything that matters or anyone that matters.”

From there he segued into a discussion about “one of the most underappreciated aspects of the strength and security of this country – the job that farmers have done throughout the history of this country,” leading the revolution against the British, feeding the workers who built the manufacturing base, creating opportunities so people could dream of being whatever they wanted to be.

“Farmers are the linchpin, the heart and soul of this great country,” he said.

Needless to say, he got a standing ovation.

Like what you see here? Agri-Pulse subscribers get our Daily Harvest email and Daybreak audio Monday through Friday mornings, a 16-page newsletter on Wednesdays, and access to premium content on our ag and rural policy website. Sign up for your four-week free trial Agri-Pulse subscription.

Asked about his plans for the future – might he follow the path of former Ag Secretary Dan Glickman and go on to run the Motion Picture Association of America for several years? – Vilsack said he had been invited to a screening of Tina Fey’s new movie, but declined. “I went to the gym and worked out. So I’m probably not going to be the motion picture guy.”

Then he got personal again, eliciting “awws” from some in the media as he talked about getting a visit at his Iowa home from his six-year-old grandson, who knocked on the door and asked him whether he could come out and play. He said he couldn’t because he had to work, but walked the boy back home.

During the walk, his grandson told him, “Grand-dad, you’re really old, but you know everything.”

So, the “honest answer” to the question of what he wants to do when he’s done at USDA?

“I don’t know,” he said.