New U.S. ag secretary sets down priorities

Tom Vilsack wants to bolster the on-the-ground presence of the United States in key export markets during his second stint as U.S. agriculture secretary.

His first post as agriculture secretary was under former U.S. President Barack Obama from 2009 through 2017.

In between those two gigs he served as president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which taught him that the country needs to have a greater presence in foreign markets.

It also instilled in him the desire to ensure that Canada and Mexico live up to the terms of the recently implemented United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, including the concessions Canada made on wheat and dairy.

Vilsack told delegates attending the 2021 virtual Commodity Classic conference that he recently spoke to his counterpart in Mexico and raised concerns about the December announcement that the country was going to ban imports of genetically modified corn by 2024, including corn used for animal feed.

Mexico typically imports around 15 million tonnes of U.S. feed corn annually worth about US$2.7 billion.

Vilsack said his Mexican counterpart assured him there will be continued access to the feed market for U.S. corn despite the ban on GM crops.

The U.S. and the European Union are temporarily suspending tariffs on billions of dollars of products as they attempt to settle a long-running dispute over subsides given to Airbus and Boeing.

He hopes that will open the door to potential free trade deals with the EU and the United Kingdom.

Vilsack said China failed to live up to the commitment it made in the Phase 1 agreement with the U.S. It bought about 80 percent of the agricultural goods that it promised to purchase in the first year of the agreement.

“They’re not where they need to be and they’re not where we want them to be,” he said.

He said it is critical that the U.S. continue to diversify its markets rather than relying so heavily on China and the Phase 1 agreement.

“On any given day something may happen in the South China Sea or in Taiwan or in Hong Kong or someplace else that creates a friction between our two countries that may impact and effect that trade agreement,” he said.

He would like to see the U.S. open new marketing opportunities in the U.K., India, Southeast Asia, and “learn how to play” in Africa.

On the domestic front there will be a crackdown on consolidation in agriculture and investment in more processing facilities.

“We learned through COVID that our supply chain was easily disrupted,” said Vilsack.

He said there is also significant need for “investing incredibly large sums of money” in modernizing the country’s transportation infrastructure and expanding broadband in rural areas.

U.S. farmers will be rewarded for embracing climate-smart practices like cover crops, crop diversity and rotational grazing.

Farmers are losing 4.5 tonnes of topsoil per acre every year and replacing it with 0.5 tonnes. That can’t continue, he said.

A carbon bank will be created to benefit farmers. Today in the U.S. there are 138 million carbon credits in various markets but only 2.5 million focused on agriculture.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has indicated that the approach to granting Renewable Fuel Standard waivers is going to be different under the Biden administration than it was under former President Donald Trump.

Waivers will be “sparsely granted” under the new administration. There will be no more waivers given to large refineries owned by big oil companies, said Vilsack.

Contact sean.pratt@producer.com

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