U.S.D.A. priorities under Obama reviewed by Secretary Vilsack

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Improved child nutrition ranks high among priority areas identified for the U.S. Department of Agriculture by the administration of President Barack Obama, said Tom Vilsack, Mr. Obama’s secretary of agriculture.

Mr. Vilsack offered a view of Obama administration goals for food and agriculture in a Feb. 26 address at Agricultural Outlook Forum 2009 at the U.S.D.A. in Washington. Progress in biofuels, food safety and even trade liberalization also were discussed by the secretary of agriculture.

A few weeks into his new position, Mr. Vilsack said he has noted a number of key differences with his last job, governor of Iowa. While as governor, "you can pretty much set the agenda," he said. That isn’t the case as a cabinet member. "You have a higher boss, and the first thing that happened to me when I got this job was that the higher boss, the president, made very clear what his instructions were," Mr. Vilsack said. "He has three goals for this department in addition to all the obvious goals."

First among those instructions/goals related to child nutrition.

"He wanted to make sure that America’s children in particular had more nutritious food," Mr. Vilsack said. "He’s very, very concerned about the health and welfare of America’s children."

Next on the Obama agriculture agenda is advancing the capability of farms to produce alternative forms of energy and fuel. Finally, Mr. Vilsack said research will be pursued to allow, over time, "agriculture to transition away from its rather significant dependence on fossil fuels."

Food safety was added to this short list of priorities. Mr. Vilsack said that while the U.S.D.A. was not directly involved in the recall of peanut products, the incident "did relate to food safety and the important role that food safety plays in protecting the integrity of markets."

Reviewing Agricultural Census data, Mr. Vilsack noted an uptick in the number of small farms with 108,000 established in the last five years. At the same time, he noted growth in very large income farms (sales above $500,000 per year) and shrinkage in mid-sized farms (with sales from $10,000 to $500,000).

Mr. Vilsack said the Obama administration will work to help turn the small farms into mid-sized establishments while promoting its nutrition agenda. He noted that a large percentage of the smaller farms produce fruits, vegetables, nuts and specialty crops.

"You will see U.S.D.A. make a major effort to try to encourage Americans and particularly America’s children to consume more fruits, vegetables, nuts and specialty crops," he said. "We have an enormous opportunity this year as we reauthorize the school lunch and school breakfast programs."

He said these commodities would receive "a major push" in the reauthorization.

The agenda for the U.S.D.A. also has been affected by the economic downturn and the stimulus package, which allocates $28 billion to the Department. Much of this will be directed toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

"Now you say, ‘Why was that part of the stimulus package?’" he said. "Because for every $5 that is spent in that program, we activate $9.20 of economic activity. More crops being sold, more crops being transported, more crops being retailed and more crops being consumed."

He similarly asked a rhetorical question about why expanding broadband into unserved rural areas is part of the stimulus package.

"Because it creates opportunities for small businesses to prosper in rural communities, giving them access potentially to worldwide markets," he said. "It helps to create those off-farm opportunities that help to support those small and mid-sized farm operations."

Turning to food safety, Mr. Vilsack said efforts to improve safety and security of the food system will receive a significant boost from the U.S.D.A.

"We need to continue to work to do a better job with all food products, which means we need to make a commitment to modernizing the food system, focusing on preventing rather than mitigating the consequences of food-borne illness," Mr. Vilsack said. He noted that 325,000 Americans are hospitalized each year because of food-borne illness.

Focusing further on biofuels, Mr. Vilsack acknowledged that the ethanol business is "stressed."

"U.S.D.A. has a responsibility of keeping an eye on that industry and providing assistance and help, particularly to struggling processing facilities, so that we maintain the infrastructure that can then take advantage of the second and third generation biofuels that are being developed right now with the help of U.S.D.A. and the Department of Energy," Mr. Vilsack said.

The secretary said he does not agree with the premise when food is pitted against fuel as if a choice between the two must be made.

"My view is that we have the capacity and the ability to do both and need to do both," he said.

Farm bill programs designed to identify new feedstocks will be accelerated, Mr. Vilsack said.

While seeking ways to support smaller and mid-sized farms, Mr. Vilsack was careful not to dismiss the importance of large farms. He noted that 125,000 farms produce 75% of the food consumed in the United States.

"It’s obvious they have a very important role and need to be supported," he said. "That means we need to continue to invest in science, in research and development because there’s going to continue to be pressure and stress on those operations to continue to produce. Why? Because our population is growing."

Beyond the importance of meeting U.S. demand, Mr. Vilsack said world demand will continue to grow as the population climbs from 6 billion today.

The United States has an important role to play as an exporter, and Mr. Vilsack said the United States must "work hard in encouraging greater exporting of American products."

In a nod toward trade liberalization, Mr. Vilsack said this hard work means continuing "the process of breaking down whatever barriers exist today to our capacity to export. We’ll be aggressive in that area as well."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, March 10, 2009, starting on Page 18. Click here to search that archive.

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