U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appeared before the House Agriculture Committee yesterday to discuss the state of the rural economy, where he stressed the need for enforcement to build trust in trade agreements and the important role of agricultural biotech. Here are a few highlights.
Mexico’s compliance with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) was raised by Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA) and Rep. Tracey Mann (R-KS).
USDA is working with Mexico “on a variety of issues,” including “biotech, approvals for corn, the ability for us to be able to continue to sell corn for feed into Mexico,” said Secretary Vilsack. Mexico's Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development has assured him that will continue. [00:27:18]
The pressure’s on China, too: “They are $16 billion short on purchases,” said Vilsack. There are “seven key areas where they have yet to perform,” including biotech.
Enforcement is key: Secretary Vilsack stated, "we want our trading partners to live up to agreements and so the first and foremost program and step here is to indicate our focus on trade enforcement and that's what we're doing." BIO has led the call for the U.S. Government to enforce Mexico to live up to USMCA's biotech provision.
Biofuels “are part of the solution to climate change,” said Rep. Michelle Fischbach (R-MN). “I want to make sure people understand that they are reducing emissions and that our USDA secretary is pushing for the farmers that are producing them.” [03:06:25]
“I’m confident that I’m one of the most ardent proponents of biofuels anywhere in this country and have been for years, decades,” said Vilsack, noting the “enormous” opportunity for sustainable aviation fuel.
On animal biotech and animal feed:
The successful transplant of the heart of a genetically engineered pig into a human is exciting—and “also a stark reminder of the lack of a clear path to commercialization for animal biotechnology products intended for agriculture,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) [00:54:23].
Vilsack understands the “necessity of having clarity” around animal biotech regulations. As soon as the FDA Commissioner is confirmed, USDA plans to work closely with them to “make sure there is ongoing discussion and negotiation” around new proposed framework for oversight (which BIO commented on).
Biotech will “play a major role” in our ability to feed the growing population, said Rep. Jim Baird (R-IN), citing his recent letter with Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) on the need for a modernized and “efficient science- and risk-based” regulatory system that will allow a path to the market for animal biotech. [01:46:30]
We have animal feed ingredients that can reduce methane emissions from cattle, continued Rep. Baird—“but yet that has to go through an FDA process rather than USDA.”
“We do need to modernize our regulatory process as it relates to those kinds of feed additives,” Vilsack responded. Currently, they’re treated as pharmaceutical products, which require a long and expensive regulatory process, but other nations are using them and getting “a market advantage by suggesting their products are more sustainability produced.”
Throughout the hearing, Vilsack frequently cited recommendations from the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA), a coalition of agriculture, food, and forestry organizations and businesses that are developing and promoting shared climate policy priorities. (BIO’s a member.)
On the bioeconomy:
A lead proponent of strengthening the bioeconomy, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) noted that Secretary Vilsack has long championed a vision of biomanufacturing, which BIO recognized in awarding the Secretary its George Washington Carver Award for Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology in 2019. Vilsack pointed to $10 million in funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill for a bioproduct pilot program at USDA which will help accelerate biomanufacturing across the country and “have a profound impact on rural America.”
He went on to note: “The ability to convert agricultural waste, not just into fuel, but also in chemicals and materials and fabrics and fibers and energy all of which creates that circular economy creates new incomes sources for farmers; it creates the ability to avoid some of the environmental challenges that we have with some of our industries.” [02:30:05]