Remarks by Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman To the Food Group Washington, D.C. March 20, 2002 | USDA Newsroom
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Release No. 0110.02
 
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by
Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman To the Food Group
Washington, D.C.
March 20, 2002

[TRANSCRIPT]

"We've been celebrating Agriculture Day at the Department today and had a whole group of children and had some exhibits. One of the things that came to visit us was a biodiesel truck and so I rode over here in this pickup

[Laughter]

"It was kind of fun. It's interesting there is a lot of new and renewed interest in the potential of agriculture and what it's going to be able to do in the future, unrelated to the food and fiber part of what we do. Whether it's the renewable fuel standard that's in the energy bill that the administration came out in support of recently or the use of alternative energy sources that is contained in the President's energy plan. I think there's a lot of new interest in some of these issues and certainly something we are going to continue to pursue. I had someone in the other day who works for a Cargill-Dow partnership. They have a plant that makes plastics and other products that are usually petroleum-based --they made all of the plastic cups for the Olympics out of corn-believe it or not.

"Today is a day we want to thank our farmers for what they do. And I've often talked about and I've talked to so many groups since I've been here, about the importance of really looking at the whole food system and the whole food chain as we talk about policy for the future. That's why I think a group like this is such an important one, one that talks about the issues of food from a whole food chain perspective. It is appropriate that we do that today as we celebrate the importance of our farmers and ranchers on National Agriculture Day. One of the things we did today too was that we brought in all of these school kids-FFA, 4-H into the Department --I wasn't going to talk about this but Nancy asked me at lunch time-she said 'I'm really interested in your Leaders of Tomorrow program.' So I thought I'd touch on that and a little bit of what we did this morning.

"We decided--as part of the President's announcement of the Freedom Corps he put into his State of the Union-working toward looking at young people, at the future, at the importance of education; looking at the importance of volunteerism and helping other people-one of the things we wanted to do is launch something that would help young people. Through things like the 4-H Clubs and FFA, 4-H is celebrating its centennial year this year so we've got a good opportunity there and FFA, it's 75th year. We are talking to ag schools at the various colleges and universities about the future of agriculture. We are taking FFA and 4-H'ers as mentees as we travel around the country and have them with us. So we are really trying to promote leadership for tomorrow in the food and agriculture industry.

"We know many of you and the agricultural organizations around the country have leadership training. We've been talking with a lot of ag leadership groups, another important part of this whole effort. We really have enjoyed launching this program and giving something to the young people that are going to be doing what we all are doing in the next few years.

"Well, I want to just talk a little bit today about the farm bill. As was indicated we are very pleased we are at a stage in the farm bill where we at least have agreement on the numbers and approximately what's going to go into each title--a basic framework. As you know, the administration has supported what the two budget committees did last year putting an additional $73.5 billion into the budget over a ten-year period. We wanted to make sure that was not front-loaded as was contained in the Senate bill and we've been very strong in our commitment to that. The conferees have agreed to this number it now appears. We thought that this had been done on Friday night and then they surprised us and it didn't really happen. But now we think they have reached agreement on how to allocate the money. Roughly, they have agreed-this is what we have been told-on $46 billion for commodities; $17.1 billion for conservation; $6.4 billion for nutrition and $3.3 billion for the remaining titles.

"What's interesting to us is that this is relatively close to what the Administration supported last fall with the Cochran-Roberts proposal. The numbers aren't the same but they are fairly close.

"We are still concerned about potential front-loading. This issue has not been resolved by allocating these numbers. So there is still this difference between the Senate and House bill. When we looked at the Senate bill, there are approximately 15 programs that would be zeroed out or substantially reduced in the second five years under the current Senate bill. So there is a concern there. What happens to the farmers and ranchers and their programs if we frontload a bill right now?

"During the recess, it appears now, our folks at USDA and the Congressional staffers are not, and probably most of you are not, going to get much of a vacation because it looks like they will be working very hard at a staff level to reach agreement on as many issues as they can. And there are hundreds of them, I believe, that are still outstanding. That's a difficult one and we understand now that the conferees will plan to come back just after the recess to try to figure out the last remaining contentious issues if the staff achieves what they are going to try to achieve.

"We get constant questions-okay we have this process going on-what is going to happen with loan rates? We made a decision earlier this year not to make an announcement on loan rates and made that decision after consultations with the Senate and the House agriculture committees. We didn't want to undermine what the Committees were going to do in the farm bill process by making a premature announcement. And we didn't want to create uncertainty in the market by making a premature announcement. If the farm bill does proceed as it appears it is proceeding now -and that agreement will be reached just after the recess--we believe the farm bill itself will deal with the issue of the loan rates so we won't have to make an announcement before the Congress acts.

"We will continue to work with the Congress to make sure this can be finished within the time frame. We really appreciate the fact that there has been such a commitment to try to get it done and try to get it behind us as early this year as possible. Because obviously, we have to implement it. We were talking a little bit at lunch about the difficulties of implementing a new farm bill. It is not an easy task. There are new computer programs that need to be written. There are bases that have to be updated. There are new programs that are going to have to be developed that we haven't implemented before and our staff is ready and in the process of preparing to do that. That is not to overstate how easy or hard it's going to be because we know it is going to be very difficult for them to do this. We appreciate all the support of your organizations as we go through this process and we know it is going to take a lot of effort on the part of our folks. We've been out and talked with some of them. I had a chance to visit with some of our employees in Kansas City and talk about how they are ready to get this job done.

"Obviously, there are still some hurdles to jump through. There's some contentious issues out there whether it is the payment limit issue that came up in the Senate bill. You know people talk about this issue as if there are payment limits or no payment limits. And the fact is we have payment limits in the House bill, we have payment limits in current law-there is just a more restrictive payment limit in the Senate bill. So I think what the conference will ultimately do is come out with a compromise that is somewhere in between.

"Obviously there's been very strongly held views on many sides of this issue. I think the conference will ultimately come to some kind of compromise.

"One of the issues that got very contentious at the end of the Senate debate was this whole Western water issue. The Farm Bureau has written a letter saying they will not support a farm bill that contains this partly because it is such a big issue to their members in the West. Again, that is somewhat of a regional issue. Many of these issues that are left outstanding are splits among and between agriculture either by commodity or regionally or both. The dairy issue is the primary example of that. I said in my confirmation hearing that I'd like to see the processing industry come together with all regions of producers and come to an agreement on dairy.

"Of course, we'll see if that ever happens.

[Laughter]

"There is a lot of difference-the House bill primarily keeps current law. The Senate bill creates a new program that costs more money and has some regional impacts that some parts of the country are not very happy about. So there is still a lot of contentious debate to go on about what is going to happen with dairy.

"Another issue is packer concentration. A study came out this week talking about the impacts on the industry as it now operates. And I think that certainly had some impact on the conferees in terms of looking at what the provision might ultimately do. But you look at where the cattlemen are; at where the pork producers are-they are really not supporting this provision. It will be interesting to see how this works out and whether there is even a compromise that can be worked out on this in the conference. I think that continues to be one of the more contentious issues as well.

"The conservation issues have come up again and there is still some debate about how much money should go into conservation; where the money should go. It is interesting that NCBA and the Environmental Working Group came out with a joint letter this week supporting the money for EQIP. But I think it is really important to note that both the Senate and the House bills have substantially more money for conservation in them. So we see more money being utilized in these farm bills in ways that the administration supports and that is putting money to help farmers on working farmlands not just taking land out of production. But looking for ways we can help farmers whether it's with the EQIP program or whether it's the CREP program--the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program-these are the kinds of programs there is quite universal support for in terms of assisting farmers with working farmlands.

"We will continue to work with Members of the conference and try to come out with agreement on as many titles as possible so that when the Congress comes back, hopefully we can have a bill pretty quickly.

"Let me turn now to another issue you raised in the introduction and that is the homeland security issue. This is an issue, a term that we didn't really have in our vocabularies seven months ago. We didn't talk about homeland security. But in USDA we were doing a lot of what we are doing now in homeland security whether it was trying to stop FMD from coming into this country or keeping pests and diseases out or protecting the safety of the food supply or conducting new research that supports those-USDA has been very engaged in protecting our food supply. But now it's different. Now we're protecting it under the guise of homeland security as well where we are not just worried about unintentional threats but we are also worried about intentional threats to the food supply.

"We increased our resources in this area. The President authorized another $328 million in defense supplemental appropriations for USDA in the homeland security area. Then we have another $146 million in the FY 2003 budget to bolster USDA programs in this whole arena.

"Our Deputy Secretary Jim Moseley has been overseeing this area. We have created a homeland security council, which is looking over our systems as well as the whole food chain. Another area where we are really trying to bring the whole food chain together from production to processing-from transportation to retailing to determine with all of you where are the vulnerabilities. Where can we work together to make sure we have the most effective system we possibly can to protect our food system. We continue to work very closely on this effort; working with the Office of Homeland Security, with Governor Ridge and his staff we look at the food issues.

"One of the things this whole issue of Homeland Security has done is that it has brought together a whole government wide review of various aspects of government.

"You've read in the newspaper the last couple of days -there have been discussions about border agencies and border security. The fact of the matter is that what we want to do as an administration is to make sure our border agencies are as linked as possible so we can have information; so we can share information; so we that we can make sure that what comes into this country and who comes into this country are things we want to come into this country. So on the USDA side, of course, we have our APHIS inspectors watching for animal and plant matter or insects or invasive species and we have our FSIS folks looking for meat safety problems and we are working very closely with agencies like Customs to get our information systems to talk to each other so that we know from Customs what's coming in and we can share that information and have a better inspection system overall.

"The whole issue of border security is one that has been discussed interagency and at a Cabinet level in terms of where we are going to go with this.

"There has been a lot of discussion on another subject I know is near and dear to your hearts and that is what is going to happen with the food agencies. There's been discussion for a long time about should there be a single food safety agency? In my view that decision shouldn't be made in the context of homeland security but we ought to be looking at how do we coordinate our food safety activities. It shouldn't necessarily center on whether we need a new agency but how do we better protect our food supply over all. So we have been working very closely with HHS and particularly FDA. We now have in Les Crawford who is deputy Commissioner of the FDA, someone who knows agriculture very well; someone who has served as an FSIS administrator and someone, who I believe, can really help with the integration of our programs to make sure we are cooperating every way possible.

"I believe there is a lot of reason to have meat safety inspection at USDA because we have animal safety and health in USDA and so many of the issues we are encountering today whether it is emerging pathogens or it's the threat of BSE in other countries, relate to animal health, to human health and the inspection and the safety of the meat supply. I think all of these issues need to be considered. We are working with HHS. Tommy Thompson and I have talked about areas where we can cooperate in cross-training inspectors, particularly when we have both USDA and FDA inspectors in the same plants. So we are looking at all of these issues to determine how we can better make government work together and I think the homeland security areas have given more impetus to make these things happen.

"Last week we also had a rumor floating around the Chicago Merc about cattle with potential foot and mouth disease (FMD). These rumors were absolutely false...they did have an impact on markets but we conduct about 800 tests per year for animal diseases such as FMD. This one happened to get ahead of itself. People in a feed lot somehow saw that the cattle had lesions and put a rumor into the market which never should have gotten there before tests were conducted and completed. So it's an unfortunate circumstance but again, we are constantly testing. We are constantly reviewing whether it's for FMD, or Medflies or citrus canker or clementines. These systems are sometimes taken for granted because they work so well.

"I want to talk about one other area that I like to call 'trade-troubleshooting' because it seems to be taking a lot of our time these days.

"We're finding we are encountering a number of issues related to trade and we are devoting a lot of attention to what I would call market maintenance. Let me give you a couple of examples.

"We've had for the last 20 days a ban on our poultry exports to Russia. This might not seem too important to some of you but the fact is this is our largest poultry export market. It is about a $650 million market but if we were to lose the market the ripple effects would be more than that. Poultry is about 20 percent of our total exports to Russia.

"We have had a technical team in Russia for the last 10 days or so. We had hoped we would have had some agreement by now but unfortunately that is not the case. I can tell you that this issue has received so much attention from every level of government-from Secretary Powell to Secretary Evans to Ambassador Zoellick, to Condi Rice because we wanted to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible. We have thoroughly investigated Russia's complaints and determined they do not warrant this ban. Nevertheless, we've taken some steps to address some of their concerns.

"We believe they are trying to impose conditions on us that they do not impose on their own industry. Yesterday I had a conversation-through an interpreter-with my counterpart by telephone and I was hopeful we could have resolution of this issue by today. That didn't happen. I just got word before I came here that the Ambassador met with Agriculture Minister again today. They have now agreed that the technical people will continue to meet. In other words, our folks were going to come home today. They will continue to meet and hopefully come to some agreement so we can get this trade moving again.

"We believe their action is absolutely unwarranted. It is inconsistent with the obligations if they are going to become and they are negotiating to become members of the WTO. So this is one of our market maintenance issues.

"We've had poultry issues with Japan. And we just were able to negotiate with the Japanese to open up that market to our poultry. We've had biotech issues in this area of what we call market maintenance. As you know we have reached, what we hope to be, a very good agreement with China on their biotech regulations. This was a $1 billion market for our soybeans last year, one that we want to maintain. We want to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure we can continue to ship our soybeans and other products to China and that their regulations do not become an impediment and a trade barrier.

"They are now members of the WTO. They have an obligation to make sure their regulations are based on sound-science and do not become trade barriers.

"We've also continued to work on the EU biotech labeling regulations, their nonapprovals and traceability. They are continuing their moratorium on biotech products. They've said they are going to lift this moratorium in October, but we've heard that before.

"Even if they do lift it in October there's a real question about whether they will actually get approvals done. So they are also moving forward on the traceability and labeling issues. This legislation is now in the European Parliament and could be ready for final approval by October as well. So we are seeking changes in the current proposal, but it is a difficult one and we are not too optimistic.

"We've also had a recent issue with Costa Rica all of a sudden deciding they weren't going to let our rice in despite the fact we've had ships on the water and they just had a ship in the port they are now going to tell to leave, without unloading.

"We are having discussions with the Ambassador here, with the Ag Minister by telephone, and pursuing a very aggressive stance on this as well. There is absolutely no reason for them turning away our rice. Their dispute about how it should be distributed is really their issue and shouldn't impact trade.

"Again, we are making extra efforts to ensure we can resolve these kinds of issues.

"We are also very, very pleased with the kind of response we've gotten from our sister agencies on these ag trade issues. Whether it's USTR, Commerce, and the NSC. We're very pleased we've been able to work so cooperatively to keep these markets open for our farmers and ranchers.

"We have also a whole range of larger trade initiatives. As you know, we launched a new round of trade negotiations in Doha. We were very pleased with the outcome. We are trying to finalize Trade Promotion Authority as you know and we have a whole host of bilateral and regional trade agreements we are working on.

"I've tried to give you an overview of what is happening. Hopefully it is helpful. I want to thank you for having me here today for letting me join you on National Agriculture Day as we celebrate the importance of our farmers and ranchers and indeed our whole food."

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