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tv   Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Addresses the National Press Club  CSPAN  March 26, 2021 2:08pm-3:05pm EDT

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defazio, chair. the speaker pro tempore: referred to the committee on appropriations. without objection, the chair lays before the house the following bill, along with the senate amendment thereto. the clerk: h.r. 1651. an act to amend the cares act to extend the sunset for the definition of a small business status and for other purposes. the speaker pro tempore: without objection, the -- the clerk: senate amendment. strike section 2-c. the speaker pro tempore: without objection, the senate amendment is agreed to and the motion to reconsider is laid upon the table. pursuant to section 11-b of house resolution 188, the house stands adjourned until 10:30 a.m. on monday, march 29,
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legislative votes following the easter and passover holidays. watch the house live on c-span and the senate on c-span2. we will now take you to hear from agriculture secretary tom vilsack. i've coverage on c-span. sec. vilsack: the opportunity for us to have better price discovery, more competition, stricter enforcement of rules to make sure farmers and producers are getting a fair shake in the market. it is fair to say there are a few concerns about consolidation taking place in the agriculture industry and how that has impacted the bottom line of farmers. that is something we at usda are going to be looking at, but can create new competition, particularly in the processing area. we think there are opportunities for the american rescue plan and some of the other tools usda has to create processing facilities
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to make our food distribution more resilient and provide more competition and more open and transparent markets. finally, an opportunity for us to take full advantage of the climate opportunity -- not the climate challenge. there's a tendency to look at climate as something silly to be avoided, something we are concerned about and going to cause significant problems in the world. i want to look at it from the opportunity side. for agriculture, it creates a host of revenue streams that could be created and help farmers become more profitable. and farmers sequestering carbon, sequestering and reusing methane, turning agriculture waste into fibers -- all of it creates revenue streams for farmers and that is transforming
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the agricultural system in this country, creating opportunities for all sides of the operation. here is why this is important -- as we build back better, today 89.6 percent of farmers in this country do not generate the majority of income for their farmers from the farming operation. that means nearly 90% of our former operations, those farm families have to have additional off farm income. it seems to be we cannot say our system is working the way it should if nearly 90% of those who are engaged in it are not making the majority of the money they need for their families from it. that is why it's going to be important to focus on more markets, better markets and new markets. on the rural development side, we understand and appreciate that tragically there's roughly 380 counties in this country where millions of our fellow citizens live and have been
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living in poverty for an extended time. in those counties, more than 10% of the population of those counties has lived at a poverty rate above 20% for more than 30 years. it is an extraordinary set of statistics that speak to the need to focus time and attendance -- time and attention on this and using both like the american rescue plan and the build back better effort on infrastructure at the president will announce at some point in time and congress will pass. and policies designed to make sure we are doing what we need to do to create the kind of partnerships and connections in those rural communities to begin turning that statistic around, to begin providing hope and opportunity for those who live in those areas and doing the job and the balance of rural america.
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it is also an opportunity to recognize that regardless of what we might do in meeting the president's goal of a net zero emissions agriculture, it won't impact and affect the overall climate effort by the united states if our forests continue to burn. that's why it's necessary for us to focus time and attention and resources and significant resources on rebuilding our forests come maintaining and managing them better. that's going to require congress to consider with the infrastructure not just great infrastructure but green infrastructure, investing in resources that allow us to do better forest management. that me spend a minute on building back better in the issue of nutrition. when we talk at usda about food, we are often talking about food safety and food insecurity. but we also need to talk about food and nutrition security. the ability for us to begin the
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process of improving the food that is available to our children and improving the choices available for all of us as we deal with the consequences of our current food system. today, 71% of american adults are overweight or obese. 18.5% of our children are currently obese. the united states government through the medicare and medicaid program spent $160 billion every year for the treatment of one disease -- diabetes. a lot of which is connected to diet. if we could cut the diabetes rate in half, we could redirect those resources in a wide variety of needs across the united states. my budget at usda is only $140 billion, so we spend more on treatment and we do on the entire department of agriculture that impacts every person that
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lives and works for these families in rural america. have a challenge -- can we improve the choices and opportunities our youngsters have in a variety of settings, can we help those families struggling and receiving snap to have the resources to ensure they get decent food, nutritious food, and can we create an informed consumer so as they are making choices for themselves and their families, they are making healthy, solid choices. this means we have to establish meaningful that if it's do provide help. we have to make sure the benefits are conveniently available and used. we have to make sure to consent to the use of nutritious option and provide information people can rely on in making decisions for their families as we deal with this issue of nutrition and
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security. i'm looking forward to the challenges of building back better along the lines we just outlined. i know i have done this pretty quickly. i was told i had about 10 minutes, so i have used a little more than that. let me stop and see if there are questions i can try to answer. host: that was fantastic. i think you touched on a lot of points and now we've got questions. i want to stick for a minute on your last point about the food assistance program. you have mentioned the department announced a 15% increase in the snap program. i know there has been discussion among democrats about making that permanent. what are your thoughts on that? is that something that's realistic for the department to do and would that go forward with some of the goals you just list it as far as americans being healthier and having easier access to food? sec. vilsack: i would hope before congress makes a decision about deciding what to do
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relative to the increase that it allows us to complete the work we have started in the biden /harris administration under the snap program. the benefit is based on the calculation on the thrifty food plan that represents the cost to an average family of what is needed during the course of a weekend month. the problem with the thrifty food plan is it was developed some time ago. it made certain assumptions about american families that may not be the case today. i am told, for example, one thing is family spend an hour and a half creating meals from scratch a day. i don't think that's happening a lot today. another suggestion is perhaps this plan is built on the idea that an average family consumes the pounds of beans every week.
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that's probably not happening either. the reality is we are looking at this thrifty food plan to develop what is really the situation today. what's the foundation of an american family today? what's the cost associated with that and how does it relate to the benefit? i think congress can make an informed decision about an increase or not that snap should undertake and how to structure that. that's just part of it. it's also important for congress and for us to think creatively about how that benefit can best be used so nutritious choices are available and so that is convenient and reflects modern circumstances today. well over a million at half people are currently using snap benefits online. if that is something that could be expanded, is there a way in
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which restaurants who have been challenged during this pandemic could tie it in some way into our nutrition programs in a creative way? some restaurants remained open for a time during the pandemic providing meals to people who are struggling. is there a way to reconnect and create some kind of innovative program from that experience? can we make sure as is the case with every program we have in the usda, that we establish an equity alliance over these programs to make sure as we are developing policies and looking at the level of benefits we are understanding we are dealing with socially disadvantaged folks who are in difficult circumstances. they may live in a remote, rural area, they may live in an urban center, they may have transportation that's not reliable or not have transportation at all. they may have a grocery store, they may not. how can we create and structure a program that ensures every
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american regardless of their circumstances gets the kind of health assistance they need? that's the challenge. host: i know along with some of the snap benefits given during the pandemic, there was a program that has been praised but has also been criticized as inefficient and wasteful of taxpayer dollars. currently, this program is set to expire on april 30. do you plan to continue the program past that dated? sec. vilsack: one of the key drivers will be the resources currently used for that program and making sure the resources congress provided for nutrition assistance and emergency assistance are fully utilized. that may allow us the opportunity to do a program of some sort, to look at the
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program and say what worked and what didn't? why were the problems in some parts of the country smirk see if we can create better approach, if you will. -- parts of the country to mark see if we can create a better approach, if you will. many of these food banks would love to have access to the people they served two more vegetables and perishable products, but that may be difficult because it may be they don't have the refrigeration storage capacity, it may be a box program that evolves around fruit and vegetables might be of great interest to a system that distributes food efficiently and also be convenient enough to those areas that are not served with a food bank distribution system to be able to provide access in remote areas. the challenge is to figure out what has worked, incorporated
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into the most efficient system without leaving anybody behind with respect to equity. emily: we have a bunch of different questions. black farmers -- i know this is something that was addressed in the recent coronavirus package to a certain degree. black farmers have criticized the agriculture department for lacking diversity and complaints about bias. i think there was up to 5 billion in the recent stimulus package for farmers and ranchers of color, for grants and loans for improving access and helping ranchers pay off loans that were guaranteed by the agriculture department. do you think these measures fully address what the department needs to do to assist black farmers or is there more you are planning on doing in the near future? sec. vilsack: when i first got
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this job in 2009, the focus was on compensating black farmers for specific acts of disco nation that occurred in the 70's, 80's, and 90's. unfortunately, during the course of the obama administration, many of those claims were resolved but the reality is we should not have felt the job had been done. what we need to do and what we need to -- needed to do then and need to do now is look at ways in which the current system creates systematic barriers of racism that make it more difficult for people to participate. we may have to take it into consideration the impact and effect of prior discrimination and how it was created -- how it has created a gap for those who had full access to usta programs forever and those who didn't. if you had a loan and your neighbor did not get a loan
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because they are black, when you put your crop in the ground, maybe you put it in sooner than he did, maybe her yields were a little bit better, maybe you made a little more money than he did and over the course of years , as you accumulated more, maybe you were able to buy that farm down the road when it became available and your neighbor who is black was not able to do that. now, you have an -- he have a system providing benefits based on size and production. that creates a real issue and it is reflected in the fact that if you take a look at covid early, take a look at those who have self identified in their dealings with the fsa office of being white or black or whatever , of the overall universe of folks who self identify and look at the covid payouts, roughly $20 million to those in that 25%
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were african-american. sounds like a lot of money until you realize white farmers, men and women white farmers, received over $5 billion. compare and contrast. the challenge, i think, is to take a look at how we might be doing the process of developing programs that respond to the cumulate of effect of disco nation and a tailored, specific way and begin an analysis of our current, existing programs to determine whether they would continue to perpetuate that gap or we could figure out creative ways to close it. that is why the debt relief portion is important. it gives people a little breathing room and allows that gap not necessarily to widen, to close a little.
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it will give us an external, 360 review to identify the carriers and figure out what will work as a solution -- identify the barriers and figure out what will work as a solution. we are bringing in a diverse team, people who have the right perspective. maybe they themselves have come from circumstances where they might have been discriminated against and understand how the process works. hopefully we can identify where the systemic problems are and route them out while trying to figure out ways in which we can lessen the stress in the gaps that exist and doing it in the right and proper way. our goal is to do the debt leaf and walk away as quickly as we possibly can -- debt relief and walk away as quickly as we possibly can and get help to as many people as we can. emily: one of my colleagues at
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bloomberg government has written about the type of collective ownership that has been passed down from family members but there is no real or formal documentation and this has deprived farmers, mainly lack farmers, from qualifying for federal assistance that often leads to them losing their land. what is your administration doing to address this? sec. vilsack: they have called for a rule that would address these issues that you just identified. the administration did not do a lot of work on this but we are going to get this rule out so we can begin the process of providing some degree of certainty in terms of why this is important, if you cannot prove ownership to access usda programs, much less going through a private bank and do a loan to start a farm or operate a farm.
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this is part of the effort you mentioned earlier, additional resources under the american rescue plan to implement the heirs property rule in a way that provides certainty for people to access programs. another section be on the debt relief is a really important section because, as you think about closing the gap, we have to look at how markets can be created to provide opportunities for small and midsize producers. we're not talking about many african-american farms or socially disadvantaged farms that are large in size. in some cases, they are very small. how do we create the opportunities for those really small operators to come together in cooperatives to be able to market to a larger institutional purchaser in larger volumes? how do we create the ability to have those who are interested in farming have the kind of access to land they need to get started
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and create the kind of wealth that has been lost over decades of discrimination? part of our challenge is to take the resources of the american resource plan and use those resources effectively to begin the process of dealing with errors properties, identifying the barriers -- heirs property, and figure out land access so we can figure out the totality of concerns that resulted from decades of discrimination. emily: a lot of really good jens and i want to see what your thoughts are now -- from my understanding, the top 10% of farmers in the country make up -- i've got all these numbers in front of me. large-scale family farms are only 3% of farms but they are 44% of value production.
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the top 10% of farms are growing the vast majority of food. how do you begin to address that and make the markets more even for those farmers who have midsize and small farms and currently cannot get there entire incomes from the farms? how do you start to address something like that? sec. vilsack: it goes back to more, better and new. more markets where you create opportunities for smaller producers to band together and have the co-op negotiate with the school district, the college, any institutional purchaser of food in the region. that gives the co-op the ability to negotiate a price outside the system, giving a premium to size and uniformity takes you out of the system where you cannot compete effectively and put you in a situation where you are
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your own boss. two, better markets. to the extent we have more competition, that is a better market and that's why it's important for usda to look at ways we can create more processing facilities, especially livestock producers who may be having a value added product, maybe it is organic or grass fed or whatever it might be, creating their own processing facilities as opposed to having to work in some of the larger facilities that have very specific requirements, uniform requirements. here something people probably don't realize. during the pandemic, we had a shut down of several of our port facilities in iowa. the reason we did is folks did not fully take the pandemic seriously, they expose their workers to terrible conditions, workers got sick, a lot of them -- enough of them got sick that
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they had to shut down. here's what they don't know -- because the plant shut down, the hog farmers who would traditionally deliver their hogs at a particular time were not able to do that. what difference does that make? the problem is a week or two later, that hog is a slightly different size than they were two weeks before. because they are a slightly different size, they won't fit through the production process, there's no place for them to go. so a lot of that pork had to be euthanized. fortunately the american rescue plan will provide assistance for folks faced with that dilemma. but the point of that is if you have more processing facilities that were not quite as uniform, quite as large, quite as demanding, we might be able to have a market for those farmers. the key is for the socially
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disadvantaged and small producer is to create more market opportunities. and newmarket's, their land can sequester carbon as well as anyone else's land. they may have the capacity with a cooperative digester to reduce their cost or produce energy for the grid which creates a new revenue stream. the maneuver being produced at their small dairy could potentially be used in a bio processing facility down the road to create a series of new materials instead of being over applied on land in some cases which causes issues with water quality eventually. there are strategies and ways to deal with this issue without necessarily saying the only reason -- the only recourse is for farmers to get bigger or get out. we want to encourage in our agricultural systems in this country diversity. we need those large production facilities because we have a demand for food that's going to
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continue to grow. but we also need the diversity of methods, diversity of crops being grown, and diversity of operators if we are going to have a healthy and transformed agricultural system in this country. emily: a reminder that everyone watching, we are accepting questions and we have a bunch it -- a bunch coming in right now. if you want to send a question, email it to us at headliners and put vilsack in the title. public health advocates are calling for the standards to be tightened and lined with 2020 guidelines. will you update the standards in line with 2020 dietary guidelines to establish limits for added sugars? i.r. number during the obama administration, one of the big pushes from michelle obama was
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school nutrition. i remember some of that was undone in the four years of the trump administration. could you talk about school nutrition standards and what if anything will your administration do with them? sec. vilsack: the decisions made during the pandemic or reduce some of the standards -- it's all well and good to require schools to do certain things but you have to make sure there is a supply chain that will actually provide the supply. but that doesn't happen, it creates serious issues and challenges for the food service folks at school. the key is to make sure our supply chain is healthy and in order so we are in a position to begin the process of moving back to where the standards were. then, the congress is in the process of looking at the
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nutrition reauthorization act. that's an opportunity to have that conversation and debate. it's fair to say the challenges we faced in 2010 are certainly the same challenges we face today. there are still retired admirals and generals in our military and our ability to have enough individuals physically fit and ready for service in an all volunteer military. we have rising health care costs associated with dietary diseases. 18.5% of our children are currently obese who are guaranteed to carry with them into adulthood very expensive chronic diseases that will diminish their quality of life. it will impact the choices they have in their lives and cost a substantial amount of money for the health care they will need. it makes sense for us to look at ways in which we can approve across the board all the choices
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we made, all the options and structure them in a way that works. that means when you deal with schools, to recognize how difficult it is for nutrition officials to feed all those youngsters on very tight budgets. it's why there was an increase for the first time in 20 or 30 years in the reimbursement rate. it's why we are currently providing through this pandemic, universal free school meals through the summer for schools involved in school meal programs because we involve -- we understand they are involved financially. when schools shut down, they did not get the full reimbursement. there was relief that provided some assistance, the american rescue plan providing opportunities for schools, but at the end of the day, it has been tough. timing it in terms of the supply
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chain, in terms of the science so we know what works, timing it in terms of products that can be produced in a way youngsters will accept, and timing it so we matched the resources available to the responsibilities we are asking folks to assume. i thing it's fair to say and this is the most important point i can make -- if we are truly serious about nutrition, and i think we should be, and i think we can make a lot of cases why it is important, we have to put resources behind it. we have to put resources behind ensuring schools have the resources adequate enough to provide quality, nutritious meals for their students. if it is a priority, you fund your priorities. i think our children's nutrition and their education is just as vital to the defense of this country as any weapon being
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developed anywhere in this country. i think it is also about research. the science evolves. we are learning more and more and as much as we like to talk about decisions -- decision agriculture where every acre of ground is analyzed so you can determine this i sleep the kinds of nutrients available, as we talk about vertical farming and micronutrients that can be applied precisely for amazing productivity gains, why aren't we talking about the same thing with nutrition? i could be wrong about this but my nutritional needs are probably different than yours. because of that, the more i know about my nutritional needs, the more tailored i can be and that's going to require research. emily: i think that's an interesting and powerful
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statement to compare the nutrition our children are getting today to being integral to the defense of our nation. i want to move to something you touched on your opening remarks and that is the crossroads between agriculture and what is currently going on with our client. you want to take action to lower carbon emissions. can you offer plans on how to do that? what do you think is possible at this point? what can the department do to get through and provide to congress? sec. vilsack: use the tools you have in a creative and informative way. one tool we have that will have an impact on carbon and sequestration and storage is the crp. it's a program that has been around for a while. it has had its ups and downs, but the congress has approved a
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6 million acres to go into that program. -- up approved a 6 million acres to go in that program. there is a 4 million acre gap between what we have authorized and what is currently in the program. is 4 million acres that can again to address some of the challenges we face. i hope we can look for ways that might encourage farmers who have marginal land to consider the possibility of utilizing that marginal land in the crp program. i would hope we could figure out ways to encourage states to work with us to look at innovations and creative ways to encourage more participation in the crp program and provide a financial payment sufficient enough that doesn't distort markets in regions across the country. number two, we have a lot of
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conservation programs and i think we ought to be targeting and focusing those programs on climate smart and cultural practices that we know work. we need to provide incentives and resources and cost-sharing. we can expand and build upon them and we also need to explore new ways to do this. one that has been suggested is a carbon bank. it's different than a carbon market. if we were to do something like this, we would have to build it, structure it and engineer it for farmers. not necessarily for the investment community or corporations looking for offset, but for the farmers themselves. why do i say that? the current environment of markets are roughly removed and only 2.5 million are involving
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agriculture and food production. why is that? it could be there are significant hurdles to overcome in participating in these markets which an investment firm can easily do. they have people able to do that. if you are a farmer, you don't have the time to do that. you don't know how to do it. so you say if the price of the credit was high enough, maybe they could figure out a way to get the people to help you. but it's not high enough. if we look at ways to create a carbon bank, it has to be designed for farmers and has to be less hassle and it has to be a value in such a way that i is a farmer can pencil it out and say this is something i'm interested in. where would you pay for something like that? we have the commodity credit
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corporation. it has two foot the bill and has to do it. you have any of resources to do what is required of it but if there is a little left over, you can start this process, you can learn to walk before you run and set up the prototype or pilot and see how it works. if it works as we think it might, if there's a lot of interest in it, we go back to congress and say how can we get this thing ramped up to a point where more and more farmers are participating? that said it all revenue, additional carbon sequestration, additional job opportunities because lots of times or contracting involved and work that has to be done on the land. that's a good message for the rural economy. it's incumbent upon us to look at all of that. emily: is it something that
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could be potentially included in the larger infrastructure package? sec. vilsack: it could. i hope in addition to that that they recognize great infrastructure as important as it is, green infrastructure and helping for better forest management -- because no matter what we do on the agricultural and ranchlands of this country, it will be wiped out if we continue to have these horrific forest fires. we have to do something to reduce our risk there. emily: i want to touch a little bit on trade. that's incredibly important for you and your department. i want to talk about mexico. they announced at the end of last year they stop -- they plan to stop importing genetically modified corn.
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how do you expect the announcement from mexico to impact american farmers and what is the usta doing in response to mexico's plan? sec. vilsack: i think it's important to understand precisely what mexico has suggested they are thinking of doing. as i understand it, based on my conversations recently with the secretary of agriculture in mexico, the importation only relates to corn used for food products. it does not include corn used in feed. emily: but they want to eventually use corn in feed. sec. vilsack: it makes a big difference to producers in the united states. let's make sure we are talking about the right thing. i've had conversations in addition with the ambassador at the trade represented of's
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office. she is well aware of the concerns and has had recent conversations with her counterpart and there is a process under the usmca for raising these issues and having these conversations and i'm confident these conversations will continue to be raised and concerns will be voiced and there are processes we could potentially use stop we are not anywhere near there yet. it's important to distinguish between what mexico is currently thinking about doing and the fact that it's not going to have as great an impact with everything all at once now. emily: i wanted to ask about the relationship between the u.s. and china. in terms of agriculture and trade, could you talk a little bit -- correct me if i'm wrong -- you have met with your chinese counterpart.
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how do you see the u.s.-chinese relationship going forward? do you see anything like other bow out for farmers like was done a few years back when the effects of the trade war were really hurting farmers? sec. vilsack: i'm not sure there's necessarily a need for any trade related assistance at this point, especially since china is buying significant amounts of many commodities. there are some they need to focus on for their phase i responsibilities and they could be doing more on the vital fuel side and they could be doing more with storage grain and dairy. certainly corn and soybeans, they are purchasing significant amounts to the point where we are back to where we were pre-tariff, pre-pandemic, for sure. the relationship with china is very complex and the secretary
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of state recently suggested as our national security advisor suggested that there is a multilayered relationship. in some cases there is conflict, in some cases there is competition and in some cases there is cooperation. in my conversations, we acknowledge the need to cooperate on climate. there are things we can learn from them and they can learn from us and things for agriculture at large that will be better to make sure we have resources to feed a hungry world. we clearly have a trading relationship that's important to u.s. agriculture and we want to maintain that relationship. the fact is they need us. they may not like that. they may not want to acknowledge that. but at the end of the day, they cannot grow enough, unlike the united states, to feed their own people.
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they need to import food and they can't necessarily import it from other sources without including the u.s. i think there's work to be done on this relationship. in addition to the specific products i mention, the overall market share we currently have has suffered as a result of the trade and tariff for. prior to the tariffs from the trump administration, we have -- we had 45% of the market. today, it is 15% and a raise that issue with the minister. it is incumbent upon us to make the case to press for responsibilities under phase one and look for ways they recognize they can have the best quality, the safest product and a reliable, stable product coming from the u.s. emily: i wanted to ask about the opioid crisis. after your first term with the obama administration, you were
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willing to leave the department but obama asked you to stay on, and you are looking into opioids and their impact on communities and you opened up about your own struggles with prescription drug addiction and i know this is a personal issue for you. i'm wondering what your thoughts are about where opioids fall into the larger agenda at the agriculture department and what if anything the role of the department would be to battle this ongoing crisis? sec. vilsack: in terms of usda and arguably -- it involves two aspects of our operation. the reality is your tomorrow is not going to be any better than your today. there may be an incentive for you to try to escape a today that's not particularly helpful,
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especially if you feel there's no hope tomorrow is going to be better. part of what we have to do is improve the economy and that starts with the transformation of u.s. agriculture, as i mentioned earlier. it's about jobs that can be created. it's also making sure people have access to the services they need when and if they fall prey to addiction. it is a disease, not a character flaw. people can tough it out. they need help and they need services. that means they need facilities, people, professionals, and to the extent they are not available, they need to be linked to them in some way. that means investing not just in facilities but tele-facilities, making sure we have adequate broadband and internet connectivity to connect people to the health -- to the help they need.
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finally, there needs to be a conversation and discussion about this out in the open so at the end of the day, people do understand it is a disease stop if i told you i had a child suffering from cancer, you would say gosh, that is so tough, naturally hard. but if i told you my son was addicted to opioids or drugs, what would your reaction be? it would not be the same. and it ought to be because they are both diseases. we have to have a conversation that allows people the space to be able to admit and acknowledge they have a challenge, they have this disease, they have this problem and they need health -- they need help without stigmatizing them, especially in a small town where everybody knows everything, in a way that doesn't jeopardize them getting back on their feet. it's a three-pronged deal -- creating a better economy so tomorrow is more hopeful, making sure there's access to services
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and it's about all of us, not just the leaders, all of us stepping up in the community and saying, look, this is a disease and we need to confront it and acknowledge it. we can't be penalizing people because they are subject to it. emily: i wanted to touch on the issue of antitrust. i feel like when we hear about antitrust today, we think about big tech, but it is something that happens in agriculture, particularly related to meat plants. i know particulate poultry plants are notorious when it comes to the concerns for workers. is this something you're administration plans to focus on? if so, is there anything you see yourself doing in the next few years? sec. vilsack: it's about better markets, at the end of the day. it's about making sure working conditions -- that's not our responsibility at usda. our job is to make sure the food
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that is prepared is safe and is inspected. our reality is they are going into an unsafe workplace. that puts them at risk. we are hopeful the to part one of labor and osha are attuned to their responsibility as it relates to workers and our responsibility as far as relates to workers and the food. we want to make sure the food is safe and our workers are safe and we should make sure the other workers are safe. this is a tough business. it's a tough business because none of us want to go to the grocery store and pay more for the food we eat. we are very fortunate in this country that as a percentage of income, we pay very little for our food. one of the drawbacks is it makes it very difficult and the margins are a small.
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our challenge is to figure out ways in which we create a more resilient system. the system we created, we saw major disruptions because of covid. i think we have to ask ourselves are we relink -- are we willing to pay a little more for a more resilient system, more competitive system, a safer system or his government in a position to provide those resources so consumers don't pay more but the government is more supportive? that is part of it. part of it is also there are rules and there are regulations and they are adopted for a reason. they need to be enforced. if someone is crossing the line and not doing what they're supposed to do, there needs to be adequate enforcement. we do have antitrust laws on the books because we expect and
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understand when there is adequate competition, the markets are better for all and if it appears a market is too close and not competitive, that there are too few involved, it is incumbent upon us to take a look at this. it's not just the department of agriculture, it's the part and of justice and a number of under -- number of other agencies and organizations involved in it. but it bears asking the question. we know there are investigations under the way by virtues of actions taken during the pandemic. it would suggest this is an area that needs to be examined and looked at and something we will be spending some time on. first, we are going to take a look at creating competition, using our resources, we are going to look at existing rules and try to figure out a better price discovery so people can better understand precisely what
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their product is worth and negotiate accordingly. we're going to reach out to our friends at the department of justice and see how they feel about next steps. i think collectively and collaboratively, we can make progress in this area. emily: before i ask the final question, i want to take a moment to thank the organizers of today's event. today's headliner event coordinator, martha hinton, lindsay underwood and the executive director, bill mccarron. i would like to thank everyone who said but it questions. sorry i was not able to do more. we have a couple of cool events coming up. on march 30, dana perino will discuss her new book and on march 31, the naacp ceo derek johnson will joins us -- will
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join us. we hope you will join us for those events next week. one final question. i know we have discussed sony important topics and you and your department are going to continue to work and push for many of them, but if you had a magic one and could get anyone policy included in the upcoming infrastructure package expected to go through congress and get to the president's desk, what would be the one policy you think is most important to get in there, the one you would want to waive your wand, skipped the bipartisanship and negotiations and make sure biden signed it into law? sec. vilsack: which hat do you want me to wear? you will me to where the rural development hat? in which case it is access to broadband. but i have for service hats.
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i would have to say tens of billions of dollars for forest service management so we can reduce the risk of forest fires. that's just the beginning, but i would like for kids to be able to eat better and i would like more markets and better markets. i can't give you one and that's the beauty of the department of agriculture.
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