AGRICULTURE SECRETARY TOM VILSACK DISCUSSES AFGHANISTAN TRIP
January 11, 2010
Susan Carter: From the Broadcast Media and Technology Center, I'm Susan Carter. I'll be your moderator for today's media briefing with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. As we have been telling you, the secretary will be discussing the first two days of his trip to Afghanistan. He's there to talk with leaders, partners and farmers about the United States' efforts to rebuild Afghanistan's agriculture sector. Callers wishing to join in on the conversation are asked to press star one on your telephone touchpad.
And now I'll turn it over to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Mr. Secretary.
Tom Vilsack: Susan, thank you very much, and thanks to all who are on the call this morning.
For the last two days I've had the opportunity to tour the country of Afghanistan with Minister Rahimi who is the agricultural minister. As you know, in December President Obama announced a new way forward for our efforts in Afghanistan, and during the course of his of speech at West Point he mentioned not only the military commitment, but also the need for us to make a commitment to a renewed agricultural economy for Afghanistan. There's no question that agriculture is critical to the success in Afghanistan in the long haul. Eighty percent of Afghanistan's population relies on agriculture for their income and livelihood. And the USDA is working closely with USAID, the State Department and the Department of Defense in a whole government approach to working with the Afghan minister. They recently announced a new framework for agriculture in this country, and we are putting people in the field and also in the capital to work side by side with Afghans towards the goals set forth in the framework. They are interested in increasing agricultural production of basic crops as well as horticultural crops that would increase their export opportunities. They need to rebuild their natural resources as a result of devastation and deforestation over the course of the last thirty years. They are very interested in helping to build an agribusiness that will enable Afghans to process products that they are able to raise into value-added products that can then be sold to their citizens and to people throughout the world, and specifically in Central Asia. And they are engaged in an effort to try to make the Ministry of Agriculture irrigation landscapes as efficient and as effective a department as possible. So they're working through a change management effort.
The USDA is partner on all four of those goals. In the area of productivity we're working with farmers to develop new strategies. I had the opportunity to meet with grape farmers who are in the process of using new methods for producing grapes here in Afghanistan that have substantially increased their yields. We had an opportunity to visit a number of folks earlier today in Helmand province where they are working with marines and USAID and USDA officials to essentially vaccinate livestock in order to increase the productivity of livestock.
In the area of natural resources we've had a chance to visit with folks from the USDA and also state natural resource departments who are working with Afghans to plant hundreds of thousands of new trees. There is a real interest and desire to look at the possibility of nut trees. This was once the center for tremendous nut production, and they are interested in returning to those days, recognizing that there are tremendous export opportunities in that area.
We are working closely with the Afghan ministry to assist in helping produce agribusinesses. Tomorrow I'll visit a juice factory where they are taking basically second and third grade level apples and other fruits and turning them into juice. It's a remarkable new opportunity for job growth in a country that currently has, in many areas, up to forty percent unemployment.
And a number of our people are working in Kabul with Minister Rahimi to work on improving the efficiency of his operation. We currently have forty agricultural staff deployed in the field. We have approximately seven or eight here in the capital. It will eventually get up to sixty-four total individuals working with USAID and Department of Defense officials. And I think it's fair to say that [unintelligible] being appreciated and acknowledged. The significance of it was recognized by President Karzai yesterday when I had a chance to meet with him. He understands and appreciates the fact that agriculture is key to stabilizing this country, and he recognizes and appreciates the help and assistance that the U.S. is providing.
We are providing technical experts in all categories. This is a country that has serious issues with water. So a number of the people that we have here are working in irrigation issues. This is a country that has significant issues with the proper use of fertilizer, appropriate seed technology, and appropriate planting techniques. All of that and much more is being provided by USDA workers.
And I will tell you that I am impressed with the morale of those who are here in the country. They are committed, they are dedicated. This is not an easy [unintelligible] to work in. They are in many cases in very primitive areas. But they are seeing progress every day, and they are excited about working with Afghan farmers who are anxious to reclaim this country's tradition of greatness in agriculture.
We are also working with land-grant universities. A number of land-grant universities have a presence in Afghanistan, and were coordinating all of these efforts in an effort to rebuild the agricultural sector.
There are challenges. One challenge is making sure that we can continue to promote exports for Afghanistan, particularly to India - that is their main customer. And that requires working in a tri-lateral way with the Pakistani and the Afghans to try to develop an agreement in which the Afghan goods can freely travel across Pakistan to India. We hope to be able to conclude that agreement in the very near future. In time there's also issues relating to security, which is why it's obviously important to have the military presence here. And that presence is already making a difference in a number of areas.
In the long run, stabilization and redevelopment of Afghanistan's agriculture sector is what will create opportunity. It is what will create jobs. It is what will create wealth and stability in this country. And that's why I think it's extraordinarily important for the USDA to be playing a very integral role in this, and it's one of the reasons why I'm here . . . to evaluate what we're doing, to take back my thoughts to Richard Holbrooke and others at the State Department as we continue this effort.
With that Susan, I'll be happy to take questions if there are any.
Susan Carter: OK, just to let callers know once again, press star one on your telephone touchpad if you want to participate in the discussion and talk with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Our first caller on the line is [Jerry Hagstrom] with Congress Daily. Jerry.
Jerry Hagstrom: Good morning Mr. Secretary. Two questions: Could you tell us how you have found the security situation for these workers in Afghanistan, and secondly, I hate to ask an outside question, but can you confirm that you have appointed [Karen Ross] to be your new chief of staff? There are reports of that in the media.
Tom Vilsack: Gerry, I'm going to hold off on answering the second question, but we will get a response to you very quickly on that. As to the first question, the security - obviously it depends on where you are in Afghanistan. There are some areas that are very, very secure, and there is absolutely no problem whatsoever. There are other areas where security is an issue and at this point in time I think those who are working for USDA feel comfortable in the presence of the U.S. military and the coordination with the U.S. military. This is a coordinated effort. It is not the civilian side doing it's thing and the military side doing it's thing. It's coordinated. In fact, it's so coordinated that there are actually agriculture development teams, in a sense, imbedded within national guard troops from a variety of states, essentially doing the same kind of work that USDA workers are doing. These are farmers from a number of states who understand agriculture and who work with Afghan farmers as well. So, there is - you always have to be vigilant, but it is important and necessary for the Afghans to see us actively engaged in all parts of the country. And obviously, we're going to make sure that our people are safe, but I can tell you that they are excited about their work. They are very up-beat about the work. In fact I had the opportunity to visit with one of our employees who actually is back here for a second tour because he realized that this was a place where he could make a difference every single day, and he could actually see the difference.
Susan Carter: Up next on the line is [John Harsh] with Agri-pulse. John?
John Harsh: Thank you Secretary Vilsack for holding this briefing. What are your impressions after meeting with government officials and farmers? Can modern agricultural technology be introduced, or are conditions there too primitive for that, farmers too illiterate?
Tom Vilsack: I think farmers in Afghanistan are no different than farmers in the United States in the sense that they are interested in figuring out how to produce more, to figure out how to expand markets and opportunity. I think it's a matter of first things first. You have to recognize that over the last thirty years this was a country that has been in embroiled in turmoil. A lot of its basic infrastructure, particularly in the area of irrigation, has been destroyed or has gone into a state of disrepair. So there are steps that have to be taken in order to bring the Afghan agriculture back to a place where it once was. There is a keen desire on the part of the minister and on the part of the president to embrace technology. But, when we speak of technology we're not necessarily talking about the very sophisticated technology that you might see in an American farm operation. But, technology - I'll just give you an example. One of the issues here is post-harvest loss. There are no storage facilities of the kind that you would see in the United States, and so we are working with the Afghan government to build storage facilities, and also to look at how they package and how they handle fruit, for example, in an effort to try to preserve it. With apples alone they've seen significant strides just in the boxing of the apples, in the boxing of peaches that they produce, that have allowed them to preserve more of what they grow and to be able to export more successfully. They're very excited about the fact that they just sent a significant amount of exports, to India, of apples. So, I think there is a desire to embrace technology, but I think it's important for us to take first things first, to be very basic. To focus on irrigation, to focus on post-harvest and pre-harvest loss prevention, to look at ways in which we can create credit systems - that's another issue that they have to confront - how the farmers put their crop in the ground. One of the advantages, if you will, of poppy production in this country is that those who deal in poppy are able to advance the costs of the [inputs]. In other words, they extend credit. They also pick up the product at the farm gate. And so, we have to come up with a competing vision that's far more compelling. So, for example, in Helmand province, the governor of that area came up with the idea of creating an incentive for wheat production by providing wheat seed and fertilizer, packaged. A value that would normally cost farmers two hundred dollars was made available to them for fourteen dollars. In one year that incentive program reduced the poppy yield in that province by a third. And that's the [unintelligible] poppy production location in the country. So, we're talking about some very basic things here, but very important things. And I think once we get the basics done then they'll begin to look at ways in which they can use mechanized machinery more effectively. But until they have the storage facilities, or the transportation facilities, and the credit facilities, and the basic production operations in place, I think they're not going to be embracing really advanced technology for a while.
Susan Carter: Up next on the line is [Harry Simons] of Simon Says.
Harry Simons: Yes, I'm from Winkler, Manitoba, Canada, and it's good to be on the program with you this morning. What do you see as the biggest challenge? And secondly, what is the biggest opportunity for you in Afghanistan?
Tom Vilsack: Well, the biggest challenge, I think, is making sure that we prioritize our actions and our efforts to be consistent with the priorities of the Afghans. This is not a U.S., or for that matter, an international led effort. There are a number of donor nations who have teams and personnel in place here. It's not something that we are leading. It's something where we're partnering. We need direction and leadership from the Afghan government in terms of prioritization of what they need. And we've been encouraging the Afghan government to focus their efforts on key locations where they can be successful, create demonstrations, create pilots, create ways in which they can show the rest of the country success. It's important for the central government of Afghanistan to build up its credibility with the people. And one way you do that is by showing results. So, I think that's the great challenge is making sure that we are prioritizing effectively and properly.
The great opportunity is probably best described in a meeting I had earlier today with a small merchant in a bazaar that I visited. I asked him what his goals were. He was a merchant who was selling potatoes and onions at the time. And he said his hope was that he would be able to operate this business for a couple years and then go to school to learn English and computer science. He had a vision of a opportunity for him to grow, both personally and from a business perspective. He can't do that unless agriculture is successful. He has to be able to have the product to be able to sell, and he can't have that product if agriculture's unsuccessful. So, to me that's the great opportunity, is giving the people of Afghanistan a sense that there is a brighter and better future. They don't have to have thirty years of strife and conflict. They can have a stable government that provides services. They can have a functioning agriculture that produces food in abundance, and also creates job opportunities for those seeking employment. And when that happens this country becomes stabilized. And when it becomes stabilized it becomes much more effective in helping us stabilize the region.
Susan Carter: Up next on the line we have [Steve Varigona] with Voice of America. Steve.
Steve Varigona: Hi Secretary Vilsack. Thanks for taking the call. There's been a lot of talk, obviously, in Afghanistan about corruption, and I'm wondering how you assess the level of corruption and trustworthiness of the agriculture ministry?
Tom Vilsack: Well, I was very impressed with Minister Rahimi's message to the parliament when he sought confirmation for a second term. He was one of seven ministers that were confirmed by the parliament. At the end of his speech he made two promises, and reiterated promises he had made in the past. One was that he would always speak the truth, no matter how difficult that truth might be. And two, he would do everything he could to avoid corruption and root out corruption. I saw an example of his truth-telling tonight. We had a dinner here at the ambassador's residence. A number of key agricultural leaders, business leaders, are here. It would have been easy for the minister to give brief comments, but he talked about the fact that his ministry needs to do a better job of getting people into these outlying provinces so that people can see the ministry at work. He didn't have to acknowledge that. He didn't have to say that. But he knew that it was the truth, because it was something that we learned on our visit today. I was impressed by that. We visited with the governor of Helmand province who, even among his supporters, when he found that there was corruption among his supporters he removed them from positions of authority and power. And we met with the local district governing council today, a council of forty-five elders who provide advice to the district governor. Their districts are similar to our counties. Three of those forty-five individuals, just a few days of being appointed, were killed. So it is not easy to be in the government service. It takes a lot of courage. But I'm confident from my observations of Minister Rahimi that he is a man focused on the right priorities, and is anxious to have a ministry that is credible and honest.
Susan Carter: Alright, up next we have [Tony Purcell] with Texas State News Network. Tony.
Tony Purcell: Yes, Mr. Secretary, a couple of questions ago you mentioned the incentive to switch from poppy production to wheat. Two part question: first, are there any safeguards to prevent this technology and knowledge, and everything that you're bringing to Afghan agriculture from simply making them more efficient and better at growing opium poppies? And second, would you support a mission to spray the poppy fields with Round-Up or some other systemic plant-killing agent?
Tom Vilsack: First of all, there was prior to this effort an eradication effort, a long-term long-standing eradication effort that was not particularly successful. And the reason it wasn't particularly successful was because, as I mentioned earlier, those who are purchasing the poppy are basically able to provide credit for inputs, they're able to make it convenient to the farmer by taking delivery of the crop at the farm gate. In order to root this out, in order to have an effective long-term solution that substantially reduces this activity, it is important and imperative, I think, to provide the farmers of Afghanistan a true alternative. [unintelligible] that the market works, that providing and producing legitimate crops is the way to go. Now, you do that by creating the kind of framework that the Afghan ministry is trying to create: looking at ways to produce credit, providing incentives, encouraging exports to India, and other Central Asian countries, all of which, at the end of the day, provides greater stability. It may be convenient to try to do an eradication, and it may work for a year or two, but it won't be a permanent fix. And I think what this country needs, and what this ministry wants, is a permanent decision made by the Afghan farmers to move away from this illicit activity towards more legitimate activities.
Susan Carter: And callers, our last question today comes from [Eddie Kohan] with Obama Foodorama.
Eddie Kohan: Hi, Secretary Vilsack. Thank you for taking the call. Can you speak a little bit about sustainability issues and the use of genetically modified seeds in Afghanistan? What's the policy approach there?
Tom Vilsack: Well, it is up to the Afghan government to make a decision about precisely what kind of agriculture they're going to promote. At this point in time I don't get the sense that there's a substantial amount of biotechnology activity. I think what folks are most interested in - again, the farmers here are farmers who have very, very small sized farm operations. I spoke with one farmer who had the equivalent of a half an acre. I spoke to a couple of farmers who had two or three acres. I think the largest farmer that I spoke to in the two days that I've been here, I think it was somewhere in the neighborhood of ten acres. These are very small operations. Very labor intensive. Very basic. We're focused on absolutely the most basic and rudimentary activities here. The most significant of which, I think, is the issue of water. These farmers are very interested in making sure that they learn as much as they can about modern simple irrigation systems that allow them to conserve and preserve a very precious resource here. In speaking with the president yesterday, his first question to me had to do with what satellites and what scientists were projecting this winter would be like in Afghanistan. He wanted to know if there was going to be a normal amount of rain and snow, or abnormal amount of rain or snow, what the temperatures were going to be like. Because he knew that the capacity of his farmers, at some point in time, to be more profitable and more productive was directly related to the amount of water, and was directly related to making sure the water didn't cause floods, or there was too little of it. And so, our focus here is not about sophisticated technology. It is about how we can take a rubber hose or pipe, extend it from a bucket or a cistern, and basically provide storage and sufficient water use so a crop can be raised. It is about making sure that there is some way to store crops after they're harvested so that losses can be minimized. It's about ways in which we can convince farmers to look at value-added crops. There's a major effort by the ministry to focus on almonds and on pomegranates, and on saffron, because they think that they have the capacity to produce those crops and they have markets, in India in particular, that would be anxious to buy those crops. So this is a very, very basic process here. Very, very basic. But, the great thing is that we're rebuilding relationships. There was a comparison made today by the minister in discussions that he had with folks from my district that we visited, they were comparing the Taliban to the marines. The Taliban basically tortured people in order to encourage their youngsters to join the Taliban, and made it difficult for them to eat. The marines, conversely, are helping with the plantings, and the agricultural activities, are sitting down with the townspeople, they're breaking bread with them, they're sharing experiences with them. And the contrast is very, very stark. And it creates the kind of sentiment about the United States that we once had in this country. Many of the people who have been in this country who have lived for a long time still remember the United States [unintelligible] in the sixties and building dam projects that allowed them to have adequate resources and water for irrigation before the wars. They remember those days fondly, and they see this activity in agriculture in a similar way. That's what this is about. And I think the president is absolutely correct when he talks specifically about agriculture being a key component to this new approach.
Thank you all.
Susan Carter: Secretary, as we bring today's media briefing to an end, do you have any closing remarks? That was kind of like a closing remark, but any [thing you had]?
Tom Vilsack: I think that'll take care of it Susan. Thank you.
Susan Carter: And that's it then, from here at the Broadcast Media Technology Center. Thank you for joining us for today's media briefing.