U.S. ag secretary wants to return to free trade

U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack says his department will focus on fighting climate change, which will also be part of international talks and agreements with other countries. | File photo

Tom Vilsack says Biden administration will look for allies ‘believing in trade, believing in science-based rule-making’

United States agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack laughed when asked about widespread reports that President Joe Biden’s administration intended to severely restrict Americans’ consumption of beef.

“There is no effort designed to limit people’s intake of beef coming out of President Biden’s White House or coming out of U.S. Department of Agriculture,” said Vilsack during a session with North American Agricultural Journalists April 26.

The rumours, reported by news agencies such as Fox News and other right-wing sources of political commentary, suggested the Biden administration was embracing climate change policies that would almost eliminate beef from the American diet.

The claims were quickly proven false, based on dated non-administration proposals, but they created a furore for a few days.

The situation highlighted the continuing sharp divisions in U.S. politics and the continuation of the “fake news” phenomenon past the Donald Trump years. However, Vilsack seemed undistracted from re-orienting USDA and American agriculture policy back toward a more pre-Trump norm, including an emphasis on multilateral trade co-operation.

His views on restoring the U.S. position among free-trade-friendly nations echoed much of the rhetoric issued by the Canadian government in recent years.

In international forums the U.S. will look for allies “believing in trade, believing in science-based rule-making, and doing everything we can to make sure that if there are those who are opposed to science-based rule-making and want to inject other notions into how we make decisions in an international forum, that we have a number of allies with us to resist that effort.”

Vilsack said he had become much more aware of the complexities and sensitivities of trade from his years as president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which had him speaking directly with foreign customers and marketers of U.S. products.

That has him spending more time now talking to foreign trade contacts than he was during his years as agriculture secretary in the Obama administration.

“I’ve called on more agriculture ministers and secretaries and commissioners around the world in the first 60 days I’ve been on the job than I may have done in the first six months or year the first time I had this job,” said Vilsack.

One of the focuses of the Biden administration is fighting climate change. Vilsack said that will also be a focus for his USDA and will be part of international talks and agreements with other countries.

“There may be the same vision, I think there is a shared vision, throughout the world on climate, on the need for us to adapt, to mitigate, to be more aggressive in efforts to utilize the resources agriculture has to in fact reduce emissions and sequester carbon and provide assistance to all of our nations to meet goals, and this can be done in a way that benefits farmers, that doesn’t necessarily impede trade, and that it can be done potentially in different ways in different parts of the world but shows we share the same vision.”

While Vilsack’s support of rules-based trade will be a relief to most Canadian agriculture industries and the federal government, the touchy subject of Canada’s dairy import controls will be unlikely to avoid scrutiny by Vilsack.

His years working with the U.S. dairy industry have him well briefed on U.S. concerns about Canada’s dairy controls, and he said he wants the provisions of the CUSMA trade agreement followed in both spirit and word.

“Implementation I think is very important,” said Vilsack.

“That certainly will be a focus from the USDA’s perspective.”

Vilsack also mentioned expecting to see better access for U.S. wheat to Canada.

How much time trade actually consumes in a Vilsack USDA will be affected by the Biden administration’s ambitious plans on a number of issues.

Racial justice and climate change are currently major issues across the U.S. government and for USDA, as well as fixing up the agency after some of the changes during the Trump years, such as moving hundreds of staff out of Washington and still having many of those positions unfilled.

The pandemic is still a major issue, as is the desire to improve food aid to poor children and families, which is overseen by USDA.

There is “a lot of activity going on at USDA, a lot of important work going on,” Vilsack said.

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