Vilsack says fast action needed on farm bill

Source: Written by CHRISTOPHER DOERING, Gannett Washington Bureau, Des Moines Register • Posted: Friday, August 9, 2013

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that the United States is at risk of losing its position as the pre-eminent exporter of corn, soybeans and other commodities unless Congress steps up its investment in the country’s aging infrastructure and moves quickly to pass a farm bill.

“We’re in a global marketplace and whatever advantages we have can disappear pretty quickly because other countries have extraordinary opportunities,” Vilsack said in an interview from Brazil, where he is meeting with agricultural officials during a weeklong trip. “If our Congress … can’t pass a farm bill, the message that sends to the rest of the world is we can be caught.”

The United States is the world’s largest agricultural exporter, with shipments this fiscal year expected to reach a record $139.5 billion.

Vilsack said that while the United States has long had the upper hand compared with other countries such as Brazil because of its ability to ship quickly and efficiently by rail, road and water, competitors are increasing their investment in their infrastructure.

Currently, he estimated, it costs about $186 to ship a ton of soybeans from Brazil to China, but only $132 from Iowa to China. That cost advantage could erode without further investments domestically, Vilsack said.

“Brazil is improving its transportation system, and now the U.S. needs to keep pace and respond. One way to do that is passing a farm bill,” Vilsack said. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who heads the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., joined Vilsack in Brazil.

The former Iowa governor has not masked his frustration with the inability of GOP leaders in the House to pass a full farm bill. After failing to pass a bill in June, the Republican-led chamber approved a measure in July, but it included only agriculture components such as trade and crop insurance. It stripped out the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, used by 48 million Americans.

The House has struggled to gain support for cuts to food stamps, with some Republicans pushing for deeper cuts, while Democrats have said the proposed reductions are too much. The House is hoping to pass its food stamp measure — a recent proposal floated cuts of $40 billion over 10 years, nearly double the controversial reduction included in the failed farm bill — when it returns to Washington next month. House leaders hope to merge their bill with the Senate’s. The Senate bill, which includes both the agricultural components and food stamps, passed in June. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.

Vilsack said if Congress fails to pass a five-year farm bill, the USDA would be forced to scale back efforts to promote U.S. agriculture abroad. “We would be at a disadvantage because we wouldn’t be as aggressive in our promotion,” he warned.