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Vilsack calls for carbon credits for agriculture and forestry, with USDA oversight, and disagrees with EPA on measuring ethanol's carbon footprint

UPDATE: Vilsack prevailed on the issues in a compromise that was key to helping the climate-change bill pass the House.

By Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
May 27, 2009

McAFEE, Ky. – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he would push Congress to add carbon credits for agriculture and forestry to the climate bill now moving through the House, and to give his department authority to oversee those segments of the proposed "cap and trade" system, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We will be advocating forcefully" for both provisions, Vilsack said at a community forum in Central Kentucky cattle country. He also said he agreed with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) that calculations of the carbon footprint of ethanol should not include "indirect land use," such as the conversion of forest land to agriculture when expansion of corn acreage for ethanol pushes production of other crops elsewhere, including other countries.

That position is not in agreement with a recent finding by EPA, but Vilsack told reporters that EPA's proposal is still "subject to peer review," and he is confident that a final rule on the topic will find him and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in agreement. Peterson said he and at least 26 other rural Democrats will oppose the Waxman-Markey climate bill unless EPA's position on indirect land use is not reversed.

Vilsack said agriculture emits 7 to 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases but could be as much as "25 percent of the solution" via farming practices that prevent carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. He said USDA is better suited than EPA to monitor those practices, since it has more than 2,000 offices, and employees "in virtually every county in the country."

During the forum, which lasted about an hour and a half, Vilsack touched on many issues facing his department. Here's a sampling.

Animal ID: Though he was on a cattle farm, in the state that is the largest cattle producer east of the Mississippi River, Vilsack didn't mention animal agriculture until asked about what is probably the hottest issue on his plate, the National Animal Identification System.

The system is voluntary, and Vilsack said only about 30 percent of producers participate, so some in Congress are reluctant to keep funding it, but an effective system is needed to maintain foreign markets. Some countries have temporarily blocked imports of U.S. beef after reports of animal diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called "mad cow disease." Vilsack said, "I'm a little scared that if you do away with the program . . . you have a more difficult time convincing our trading partners that American beef is safe."

Vilsack said the department's current listening sessions on the issue may fidn "a creative way we can improve this system so more people can participate." He told reporters that a participation rate of 70 to 80 percent is needed to give confidence to foreign markets, but declined to put a time frame on that goal. In a separate interview, he declined to say what circumstances should require the program to become mandatory "because people will read into that answer . . . that I’ve made a decision about how the animal identification system should work."

The prospect of a mandatory system has brought strong objections from small farmers, who say its cost would be too much for them, but Vilsack said he had also "heard small producers say this is a good thing." He said the suggestion of subsidies for small farmers to join the system is "still up in the air," awaiting conclusion of the listening sessions. "I would hope that by the end of the summer we've got a clear idea of what will work."

Dairy farmers are "in crisis," Carolyn Orr of the Council of State Govrnments told Vilsack as she asked him when the system that controls their industry will start to be reformed.

"I don't want to say that change is imminent, because this is a contentious issue," Vilsack replied. He said USDA has been "trying to stop the bleeding in dairy," by putting 200 million pounds of nonfat dry milk into food programs and reinstating its export-assistance program for the industry. The latter move was strongly criticized by 29 nations at the World Trade Organization.

Vilsack said he heard recently about a California dairyman who committed suicide, leaving seven children and a wife to keep their farm going. "There's a human cost to this that we sometimes don't appreciate," he said, after telling that story and one about calling the widow of an Iowa hog farmer who killed himself in 1999, soon after Vilsack became the state's governor. "We try to do all we can for these people," he said with a touch of frustration. "I just don't want to have to make another call like that."

Conservation programs: To a questioner who voiced concern about proposed budget cuts in conservation programs, Vilsack said there wouldn't be a cut in spending, because applications for payments always fall short of the appropriations. In fact, he said, "I think you're going to see a pretty significant increase."

To another questioner, who asked for resumption of full funding for the Resource Conservation and Development program, Vilsack said he knows from his experience as a governor, state senator and mayor that the program does good work, but "It's just a question of who pays for it," and who benefits from it. States and localities get the benefit, he said, and the department must fund places to cut its budget to help reduce the federal deficit. He said the current budget proposal was drafted in four weeks, as the administration began, and it did not have time to dig deeply for places to save money and spend it more efficiently.

The Department of Food? Vilsack and his audience appeared to agree most about the need to educate people outside rural areas about their connections to agriculture. "I think there's going to be a real interest on the part of consumers to know their farmer," he said.

The secretary said USDA is "often misunderstood," and he is working with non-rural members of Congress to "rebrand the department." He said the planting of a "people's garden" outside the huge USDA headquarters on Independence Avenue in Washington provides "a very graphic opportunity for people to understand" the department's relationship to food.

"We take our food supply for granted," he said. "I think we also take our water supply for granted. We can no longer do that." He said public education should begin at an early age. "The more we can get kids' hands in the dirt, the better off we will be as a country," and the better the decisions the political system makes about agriculture will be, he said.

Later in the day, Vilsack visited a food bank in Louisville. For his office's news release on the Kentucky forum, click here.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 06/28/2009