NEW ORLEANS (DTN) -- As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack continues his somewhat farewell tour of speeches as President Barack Obama's longest-serving cabinet member, he continues to stress optimism for rural America and the importance of agriculture to the country as a whole.
It's a theme Vilsack has built on in different ways throughout his tenure, which is expected to end when a new administration takes over in January. On Friday, Vilsack addressed the Commodity Classic show for the eighth straight year, touting overall economic conditions, the importance of trade, and the value of biotechnology to U.S. food security.
"I want to start off by saying in the seven years I've been secretary, I've never been more optimistic about the future of agriculture in this country than I am today," Vilsack said.
He acknowledged the comment may be surprising given the weak commodity prices and outlook for prices. Still, Vilsack highlighted the productivity of agriculture since 1950. From that point to today, U.S. agriculture has seen a 170% increase in total productivity while inputs have remained relatively stable on 26% less land and with 22 million fewer farmers.
"So I realize when I speak to you today I am in the presence of the greatest farmers that the world has ever seen, and that's one reason why I'm optimistic," Vilsack said.
Regarding farm income, Vilsack said farmers selling more than $350,000 in sales -- about 15% of farmers -- generate 85% of production. Those farmers are showing a slight increase in income. Further, off-farm income is increasing, he said.
"Even in tough, difficult times, American agriculture continues to succeed," he said. "And I'm convinced our best days are ahead."
Talking to reporters later, Vilsack was asked about the overall decline in net farm income and farmers at the Commodity Classic lamenting the current economic conditions. Incomes are down from a high-water mark, he noted, but debt-to-asset ratios are not close to the risks farmers faced in the 1980s.
"I think I buy into the fact that we have to do more to expand opportunities," Vilsack told reporters. "I'm not willing to suggest the sky is falling, because I don't think it is ...You have to be steady.
The secretary did note to reporters he believes there is an issue with cash rents and some adjustments need to be made there.
He's also not pessimistic because the world wants what U.S. farmers can grow. Trade opportunities could further expand markets and sales, he said. The secretary said he is "an unapologetic proponent" of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He noted there are 535 million middle-class consumers in Asia, "many of whom want what American agriculture can produce -- high quality, affordability and safe food."
He noted the risk of failing to capture a higher share of the market in the Asian Pacific as China is currently negotiating a separate trade deal in Asia. Vilsack criticized congressional and presidential opponents who want to either wait, renegotiate or kill TPP altogether. A one-year delay in approving TPP translates into $94 billion in lost value to the U.S. economy, according to a group called the Peterson Institute.
"I see an opportunity for us," Vilsack said. "I see an opportunity for us to open up markets that have been closed for far too long."
On a separate topic, Vilsack continued to raise questions about the sale of seed and chemical company Syngenta to the company ChemChina, a $43 billion deal. Vilsack said he was "keeping a wary eye" on issues surrounding the sale. Throughout his tenure, Vilsack said he has been trying to convince China to create a more consistent biotech regulatory system based on science. The Syngenta sale raises concerns "over whether our seed companies and our producers will be put at a disadvantage," he said. The secretary added, "So I'm going to continue to raise concerns about this, raise questions about it in hopes we get an affirmative indication from China they are going to move to a better system, a more consistent system, a more scientific system."
Speaking later to reporters, Vilsack questioned whether ChemChina would give Syngenta an unfair advantage in China or whether U.S. farmers "would get a level playing field."
On biotech labeling, Vilsack said he's worried that "chaos ensues" if Congress doesn't act on biotech labeling legislation now in the Senate. His main goal is to ensure a bill gets 60 votes in the Senate that conveys consumers' right to know what's in their food without giving the wrong impression about the safety of biotechnology. He said food costs would rise and consumers could be unnecessarily concerned about their food if every state is allowed to create a different labeling scheme for foods with ingredients from biotech crops.
"I'm here today to say unequivocally they are safe to consume," he said. "There is no risk associated with them, and we need to make that clear to the consuming public."
Beyond generating fears among consumers, farmers and the food industry should be proud of the technology, reflecting the innovation of the country. "It's something that's going to allow producers to be more productive, but to do so with less inputs. It's going to allow the producer to be an even better environmental steward," Vilsack said. Recalling a conversation he had with a biotech company executive, he said, "You need to aggressively market this not only to producers, but also to consumers. We need to be extraordinarily proud of American agriculture."
The secretary added, "We are a food-secure nation. We are a safer nation because of American agriculture. There is nothing to hide here. There is everything to be proud of."
Reflecting on the history of U.S. agriculture and the fact he will be leaving office in under a year, the secretary noted the country was built over the past 240 years on the basis of being a food-secure nation. "I know as I leave this job that one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the strength and security of this country is the job that farmers have done throughout the history of this country," the secretary said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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