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Release No. 0143.14
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Remarks as Delivered by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to Stakeholders in Paris, France

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I certainly appreciate the opportunity to be here this morning, and appreciate the Chargé for making this opportunity available. And I appreciate the fact that I'm not going to have to work again in the garden. That is one of 2,000 People's Gardens that were started when I became Secretary, across the globe. We were commemorating the 200th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's, one of our presidents, birth. And we wanted to do it in a special way to acknowledge his establishing the Department of Agriculture. And so we decided to create an organic garden on the grounds of USDA in Washington, DC.

Now, if you were back in the United States, you would probably know a lot about the First Lady's garden, Michele Obama's garden on the White House grounds. She gets a lot of attention for that garden. I'm a little jealous. I think our 2000 Gardens are pretty neat. But they are all over the world. And each year in those gardens we harvest the crops, if you will, of fruits and vegetables and herbs, from those gardens. And we donate them to community kitchens and food banks throughout the United States. And last year we donated over 3 million pounds of food.

So we're very proud of those gardens, and we really appreciate the Ambassador and his wife basically making the opportunity available here. And it's obviously a gorgeous garden.

You know, I couldn't help but think about my first visit, as governor, to France. I came with Governor Henry from Oklahoma, and our spouses joined us. And the purpose of our visit was to look at early childhood education facilities in France because the French had been leaders in encouraging early childhood education. And it was something that we as governors were also interested in instituting in our respective states. And I will never forget, we got there just in time for the luncheon meal. And we were a bit taken aback when the china came out. After all, these were four- or five-year-old children. We certainly didn't trust our two sons, who were young at the time, with china. But these youngsters were sitting around the table, the china came out, and the fresh fruit and vegetables were served. It was a spectacular meal. And I think it certainly made an impression on me. And I think it underscores the importance that the French have obviously about food, and at a very early age instituting in their young people a respect for food and an understanding of the importance of it.

I can tell you, that visit did indeed impact and affect my state in terms of early childhood. But it took me getting this job to begin the process of trying to impact and affect what our children eat in the United States and in schools. Several years ago we passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The purpose of that was to really change the food that was being prepared at schools across the United States, to introduce more fruits and vegetables and more wholesome and more nutritious food, because we are faced with a hunger and obesity challenge in our country, and we wanted to address it in the right way based on better nutrition standards.

And as we did, it sort of underscored one of the messages I bring today: which is, the United States is evolving in terms of its attitudes about food, and its agriculture is constantly and consistently evolving. And one of the things that is striking about American agriculture—which is often under-appreciated by many in my country and potentially here in France and around the world—is the diversity of American agriculture.

It is diverse in terms of our production processes. We obviously have genetically modified operations. We have conventional operations, but we also have a growing organic food industry. It is diversified in the crops that are grown: tremendous diversity throughout the United States. And it's also diverse in terms of the size of its operations. American agriculture is not monolithic; it is not one large production-sized farm. In fact, the vast majority of farms in the United States are very, very small and do less than $50,000 U.S. in sales each and every year.

So it's important I think for me to set a context for American agriculture that is diverse. And we celebrate that diversity, and we are looking for ways in which we can enhance that diversity.

We recently passed a Farm Bill which is similar in its impact to the Common Agricultural Policy that's been established recently here in the EU. And it's, I think, an important opportunity for us because it reflects significant change in the way in which we approach agriculture, the way in which we support agriculture. And perhaps most importantly of all, it creates a new opportunity for us to begin the process—that should, frankly, have started a long time ago—of rebuilding and revitalizing our rural economy. And this is, I think, an important message for me to convey to this group because I think it does tie into our conversations on trade.

In order for you to understand what we have done, you have to understand where we are. Rural America is the source of most of the food. A good deal of the water that our country consumes is the place where most of our domestic energy is produced. And it is the place where a disproportionate number of our own military comes from. So it's an important place. But over time, it has had a challenging environment and economy.

We have roughly 720 counties, which are local government units, in the United States that are persistently poor. And over 500 of them are located in rural areas. We have a disparity between income, and for the first time in the history of our country we are actually losing population in rural areas. And the question is: why is that?

One of the reasons is that agriculture over the course of time in the U.S.—and, frankly, across the world—has embraced technologies of one kind or another. We often talk about genetically modified crops, but there are other technologies that have driven greater efficiencies in agriculture: mechanized agriculture, tractors, combines, equipment, seed technology that's not genetically modified but hybrid seed. These technologies have allowed American producers to become extraordinarily efficient, and as they became efficient there was not the great need for as many farmers as we once had.

When Jefferson was here and when he left, and when he was president of our country, the vast majority of people lived, worked, raised their families in rural America, and farmed. When Lincoln established this Department, the same thing was true. Even in the lifetime of some who are still on this earth, U.S. agriculture was quite subsistence. And the rural economy was much dependent on the farm economy.

Because we have fewer farmers today, the failure was that we didn't create a complementary economy, an overlying economy, a contributing economy to agriculture. We didn't figure out ways in which we could creatively use our natural resources more efficiently to be able to offer opportunity to young people so that they would know that they had the option and the opportunity to stay.

Well, this Farm Bill creates that opportunity. And it has basically four cornerstones, and I'll briefly discuss three and then discuss the trade piece of it in more detail.

First of all, because we have great diversity in American agriculture—in terms of size and in terms of product and in terms of production method—it is very difficult for small- and medium-sized operators at times to be particularly competitive at certain markets. And so it was important for us to create new opportunities for those small- and medium-sized operators to have their own market, if you will, and the ability to sell directly to a consumer rather than selling to an elevator or selling to an aggregator. Create the opportunity of farmers markets, the opportunity to aggregate locally produced food and then sell it to the local schools in our Farm to School Program or to sell it to local institutions that buy a substantial amount of food. It creates a real opportunity for those small- and medium-sized operators, and it creates a new economic opportunity for job creation in rural areas.

And in fact, it's the fastest growing aspect of American agriculture today—local and regional food systems. That was one cornerstone.

The second cornerstone was a continued commitment to conservation. But it's seeing conservation not simply for the environmental benefits of taking care of your land and water—which our producers, our farmers, and certainly the farmers here in France and the farmers around the world care deeply about because it's their livelihood—but recognizing that conservation can create additional add-on economic opportunities.

As we deal with global climate change, as we deal with the need to sequester carbon and other emissions, conservation creates the opportunity to develop local markets in which a regulated industry can—instead of building infrastructure that's expensive to build and maintain—can actually contract with the local farmer to engage in certain conservation practices that will generate the same environmental result—actually, for far less money to the regulated industry—and a new income source for the producer.

So conservation and ecosystem markets is sort of the second leg or second cornerstone.

And the third cornerstone is the bio-economy—the ability for us to do a better job of using crop residue, agricultural waste product, livestock waste, and nonproductive land to create the feedstock that doesn't compete with food needs but creates the ability of a processing facility, small in size and employing rural people, to convert it not just to fuel and energy but to chemicals, to materials.

Several examples. Coca Cola is now using corn cobs in the U.S. to produce its plant bottle which they use to produce their water product around the world. They need 10 billion of these bottles a year. In two years, that bottle is going to be 100 percent plant based, 100 percent recyclable, and it creates enormous opportunity to add value to a corn cob that heretofore had little value.

Another example from the forested areas of our country is the notion of taking woody biomass and producing materials that can be used by military and law enforcement as armor. Literally, with nano-technology you can take woody biomass and create a vest that is lighter than Kevlar and stronger, that can withstand bullets. A split second in a military battle or in a law enforcement situation could mean the difference between life and death for that soldier or that police officer.

Lighter materials, stronger materials, bio-based materials, moving away from over-reliance on fossil-fuel-based materials—can create real opportunities.

So that's the third leg, the bio-economy.

The fourth leg is obviously trade—the ability of the United States agriculture and the ability of farmers all over the world to be able to trade freely and fairly. And that's an important consideration because trade not only creates opportunities for producers, but it also creates jobs. And so we are obviously a big proponent of free and fair trade. But obviously key to that is the ability to negotiate agreements, either bilateral agreements or multilateral agreements that establish the rules by which free and fair trade can happen.

Let me begin by suggesting that this is not a situation where producers around the world need to look at trade as potentially creating an unwinnable competition or difficult competition. The reason I'm confident saying that is, that as the world population continues to grow and as protein needs continue to grow particularly in Asian countries and emerging middle-classes around the world, there is going to be an enormous demand for food production. And, frankly, there are going to be potentially more customers than food.

So I think there's always going to be market opportunity, and I think the ability to get food to people who need it in the most efficient and effective way is in part supported by free and fair trade.

So we have obviously looked for opportunities, and we are currently engaged with our Asian friends in a Trans-Pacific Partnership discussion; and we are obviously engaged in a conversation here with the EU. I think that the discussions in the EU have started with a common goal, which is that I think all of us are looking for additional opportunity for those who farm and those who seek employment. And we think one way to obtain that is trade.

Now, the reason I'm confident of that is that I've seen the impact and effect of these kinds of trade agreements on what happens in the U.S. Certainly if you look at the North American Free Trade Agreement and its impact on agriculture, what is striking to me is the balance between Canada, Mexico, and the United States in terms of agricultural trade. There is no one dominant country in that relationship. And it is also clear that everyone has seen increased activity: every country, every group of farmers has seen significant increased activity. And it has spurred significant innovation in agriculture in all three countries.

We think that can be replicated if the agreement is structured properly. This is not going to be an easy agreement, and the reason it's not going to be an easy agreement necessarily is because there are different systems in place in the EU, in France, in the United States.

For example, I think the EU has believed strongly in sort of a hazard identification precautionary principle system in terms of identifying potential risk to food safety. You all see this as a very high standard. We in the United States use a slightly different method, sort of a risk assessment, risk management system, with the same goal in mind which is a high standards effect on food safety.

The reality is, despite the fact that we have different systems, the goal is the same: high standards and food safety. And if you think about it, it just makes common sense—because you're going to have a hard time marketing to anybody if your food is not safe.

The same thing is true with market access. I certainly understand and appreciate the desire of many here in Europe to protect high value propositions with reference to agriculture—whether it's high value as a result of culture or whether it's high value as a result of geography, or anything else. I understand that concept. That's a concept we understand in the U.S. through our trademark system.

We also believe that in order for trade to work best there needs to be a common language in terms of market access, and there can't be mechanisms that are used to prevent open access. There need to be mechanisms that encourage choice, both in terms of consumers and in terms of producers.

There is a common language in trade discussions, and that is the common language of science. Science can establish an agreed-upon level of activity that is recognized across the world. Darci Vetter and I just had an hour-long conversation with folks at OIE, which is an international standard-setting entity on livestock. It's 180 countries. And it is clearly focused on standards based on science. That's a common language. It creates consistency and predictability so that companies, producers, wherever they are, can rest assured they know what the standard is they have to meet to be able to engage in trade.

And it creates enormous consumer choice. And consumers will always make the right choice. I have no doubt that consumers here in Europe will continue to support products that are produced here in Europe. I have no question about that.

But our view is that consumers ought to have a choice.

And I think it also instills confidence in the regulatory systems that are set up, regardless of the system you use. You certainly have a European Food Safety Authority here, and it basically opines about the safety of certain practices and certain technologies. I think it's important to basically acknowledge that work and allow that work to provide a basis upon which people can get that predictability and consistency in order to have market access.

And then the market will decide. And if at the end of the day someone goes into a market with a product that nobody buys and nobody wants, it will be very clear that won't be offered for very long because it won't be a good business decision to do so. But the consumer should not necessarily be denied that choice, in our view.

So we have different systems, but we have common goals. And the question in trade discussions is not if can we compel each other to buy into our system. I would never ask that of the French or of any country. It's not the right thing to do. At the same time, I don't think anybody should ask me to abandon our system and embrace a different system.

What we should be looking at is, not what are identical systems, but how can we establish equivalent systems that allow us to maintain our values but at the same time end up essentially in the same place: maybe taking different routes, different structures, different methods, but eventually ending up in the same place with a safe, nutritious, wholesome, affordable, accessible, diverse opportunity for consumers to choose.

It seems to me that we ought to be focused on equivalency, not on identical activities.

The reason for that is because at the end of the day trade relationships are obviously about more than just the economics of trade. They are about an extension of the relationship between two countries or between two areas—the United States and the European Union. There is no stronger relationship, no stronger bond that exists today than the one that exists between the United States and countries in Europe. It's our strongest relationship, by far.

A trade relationship will cement that relationship. It will extend it, it will strengthen it, and it will provide long-term benefits.

It will also allow us to focus on a common challenge that we have. I alluded to this earlier that there are too many customers and not necessarily enough food. Or certainly we are potentially facing that with a growing world population, a greater demand for protein. At the same time climate change is creating serious challenges for agricultural production—challenges in terms of more intense weather patterns, longer droughts, more severe flooding, more severe storms, additional pests and disease that are related to a changing climate. All of that makes it more difficult. Scarce water resources. All of that makes it extraordinarily difficult to meet the global need for food and to certainly meet the need of developing countries for food.

So working together, building that relationship, will allow us to continue to collaborate on our Global Research Alliance, which is designed—41 countries including many in the EU and the United States—to look at ways in which we can understand better the impacts of climate change, and work to mitigate and to adapt to the changes that are occurring. It's to allow our farmers regardless of where they might be located or what challenges they may face to be able to continue to produce and produce at levels that will allow us to keep pace with growing demand.

It's why we are encouraging European nations to join with the United States and South Africa and the World Bank and others to establish a Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance. Let's identify practices and procedures which we think over time will have a benefit in terms of allowing us to continue to produce enough food. It's why we are engaged in the United States in our Feed the Future Initiative, which is really designed to help developing countries continue to maintain and to increase their productivity. We don't see this as potential competitors; we see this as helping us help them, and them helping us meet this growing global food need.

I am extraordinarily confident about the future, notwithstanding some of the challenges that we may face in discussions about trade, because I think at the end of the day that long-term relationship, that need to meet the common challenges, that opportunity to be creative to find equivalence that allows us to protect that which we hold near and dear but at the same time provide adequate market access is not beyond the capacity of good people in France, good people in the EU, good people in the U.S.

I am extraordinarily confident because I think, working together, the EU and the United States can send a strong message to the rest of the world to remain confident in the ability of agriculture generally to meet the needs, and to do so in a sustainable way.

Sustainable in all of its components: the social sustainability of animal welfare; the environmental sustainability that involves reaction to climate change; understanding the appropriate use of chemicals and pesticides and other technologies; and the economic sustainability that is obviously important in order for us to maintain folks who live, work and raise their families in rural areas.

Let me finish, before I take questions, and simply say this is very personal to me. I grew up and started out life in an orphanage in a city in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was fortunate enough to marry a young lady who came from a small town, and I went back to that small town to practice law. As part of a law practice in a small town in the U.S. you end up representing a lot of farmers. And I represented a lot of farmers during a very difficult time in the 1980s when a contraction was taking place, where farmers in our country were over-extended in terms of debt. And I had experiences in that process that really gave me a closeness and a feeling about farmers in general—the notion that these people care so deeply about their land, they care so deeply about their family. They have enormous pride in the notion that they are helping to feed people, so it is an extraordinary thing. And that they want the opportunity to pass on to the next generation the same opportunities that they have had.

I shared yesterday in a small group one such client that I represented. He was a big man. He came into my office as farmers in my country who wear all sorts of gear—Oshkosh bib overalls, muddy boots. He came into my office, sat down, and I was just sort of overwhelmed with this man because his hands were just enormous. And I listened to him, and I realized about half-way through that he was explaining how he was being foreclosed on, how the bank was taking his farm and how devastating it was. And I realized there was something more to the story. This wasn't just somebody coming in with a foreclosure action and saying, "Try to help me save the farm."

So I probed, and eventually he shared with me that he had seven sons. The first six sons became doctors, lawyers, engineers, didn't farm, left the farm. The seventh son decided to stay and farm with his dad, and so because of that they expanded their operation. And they worked together. And then the bottom fell out. And this young man who understood how important this farm was to his father felt so badly about the circumstance and so depressed about it that he ended up taking his own life.

Folks, I share that with you because I want you to know, this is personal to me. I will always remember that man, that client, that friend, that farmer—because to me he was very representative of the kind of people who farm. And I guarantee you I could find those people in France. I can find them anywhere in the world. Anybody who says they are a farmer will have that connection to the land, that desire to feed people, that belief that they are stewards and that they have a responsibility to pass on to the next generation.

So I am here today to explain a little bit about American agriculture, to focus on our common goals, and to challenge all of us to find a way through difficult and challenging issues: to be creative and innovative so that we can expand opportunity so that we can meet our responsibility to those good men and women who allow us—by virtue of the fact that we've delegated our responsibility to feed our families to them—to continue to do what they do and what they love to do.

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