A Conversation with Tom Vilsack

Thursday, June 9, 2016
Enrique de la Osa/Reuters
Thomas J. Vilsack

Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Former Governor, Iowa (1999-2007)


President, Council on Foreign Relations

Tom Vilsack, the longest serving member of the Obama administration cabinet and former governor of Iowa, discusses his department’s role in U.S. national security strategy, including its work in protecting U.S. food supplies, conserving U.S. natural resources and forests, securing a clean water supply, and aiding developing nations.

HAASS: Well, welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations on one of the glorious days of this or any other season or year here in New York. This is our semi-annual—not to be confused with biannual—Daughters and Sons Event here in New York. We do the same in Washington. I want to welcome our members, the children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews of our members, the neighbors of our members, people who were kidnapped by our members to—(laughter)—to come here. Also, students from a number of area schools. We are—we’re thrilled to have you.

What we’re going to do tonight is—I’m going to introduce the gentleman on my left in a second. We’re going to have a conversation for a bit. And then we’re going to open it up to you all to ask the questions. And when you do, I will ask that you identify yourself and your school or place of employment.

The gentleman on my left is the secretary of agriculture for the United States, Tom Vilsack. He was a two-term governor of the great state of Iowa, which figures prominently every four years.

VILSACK: It does. (Laughter.)

HAASS: It gets rediscovered. He is the longest-serving member of Barack Obama’s Cabinet. Indeed, I believe, you are the only member of Barack Obama’s Cabinet who’s been there since day one.

VILSACK: Well, Shaun Donovan’s at the OMB, but he and I—but I’m the only one with the same job. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Same job, right. You bored?

VILSACK: Pardon?

HAASS: Are you bored?

VILSACK: No, I just can’t find another job, so I’m keeping it. (Laughter.)

HAASS: This is concern over not adding to unemployment is the—is the motivator here. You’ve got the secretary’s bio, so I won’t take time with it. What I’ll do, again, is just quickly get into questions, and then we will open it up to you. I have a little bit of an advantage, I should also say. I’ve known Secretary Vilsack for some time. And to make—in the spirit of reciprocity, I’ve spoken at his events in addition to his speaking at ours. And in the process, we’ve learned some things about what he does.

So at the risk of stepping on my own story, let me just say, I think he has, I guess after the—maybe the coolest job—certainly the coolest job in the Cabinet. One of the two or three coolest jobs in the government and maybe one of the handful—half dozen or dozen coolest jobs out there. And you’re saying, how could the secretary of agriculture do that? So take a minute and tell them just why it’s so cool.

VILSACK: Well, we—if we were a bank, the amount of loans that we’ve done, we’ve done over a million loans. If we were bank we’d be one of the largest banks in the country. We have a $206 billion portfolio. We help to build schools and hospitals and mental health centers and fire stations and police stations. We do—basically we have an infrastructure bank, where we’re helping communities take care of water treatment, electricity, expanding broadband. The Forest Service is under our purview, so we have this incredible opportunity, this natural resource. We are located in 90 different countries with personnel focused on trade and food safety. We have a food safety portfolio. We are obviously in the business of lending money to farmers.

We have an incredibly large research component to our mission. We are, in essence—just about anything domestically that you can think of, we are engaged in and involved in, especially if it’s in rural areas. And we handle all the nutrition programs—all the school nutrition programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the WIC program. So we impact and affect virtually every American almost every day. And I used to say to our team, we’re an everyday, everyway USDA. It’s an incredible department. And it is underappreciated. And certainly very few people understand the reach of USDA. And a lot of creative things can be done at USDA. So we’re having fun.

HAASS: So let me just sort of fill this out. I didn’t virtually any of that, the idea that essentially the Department of Agriculture is also the department of small town America, carries out all these other—a bunch of them. One might have thought that the Forestry Service was in the Department of Interior. But, silly me, it’s—why is that, by the way?

VILSACK: Well, because in the past there was a great deal of harvesting that took place from the forest. And so as a result, it was treated as an agricultural product as opposed to a natural resource.

HAASS: Do we have enough farmers in this country? Do we have a farmer glut or a farmer shortage?

VILSACK: We have an aging farming population. The average age of our farmers is 58. It’s an incredible—

HAASS: Can I say, that is the same average age as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. (Laughter.) And now I want to know, how many members are farmers? (Laughs.)

VILSACK: Here as well. I mean, the reality is that farming and agriculture in this country is one of the—is an incredible story of innovation. I was sharing earlier today with President Clinton that when I was born, we had about 25 million farmers in America. And that was probably 25 to 30 percent of America’s population. And most of the other Americans were probably one or two generations removed from the farm. Today we are producing 170 percent more than we produced when I was born, on 26 percent less land, and with 22 million fewer farmers.

The challenge, though, is for us to diversify our farming operations, not only in terms of size of operations and production methods and location, but also in terms of producers themselves. That’s why we’re encouraging more women, more people of color to participate in farming. And we’ve made an aggressive effort to give people an opportunity—whether they’re in an urban center or in a rural community—to have the great pride of being able to produce your own food.

We’re a food-secure nation. In fact, just today we were determined to be the most food-secure nation in the world.

HAASS: What does that mean?

VILSACK: Well, it means that we essentially are one of the few nations that can actually feed itself. We don’t really have to import anything. We import because we like to have choice and diversity and avocados all 12 months out of the year instead a couple months out of the year. But we wouldn’t have to have that. Now, that’s an incredible advantage. A place like China, for example, is not capable of feeding their own people. So they have to import. And they feel, frankly, a bit weakened by that, because they have to import. They have to be reliant on other nations for their food products. And so it’s a tremendous opportunity that we have.

And everyone who’s in this audience that’s not a farmer, is not a farmer because you’ve delegated the responsibility of feeding yourself and your family to somebody else, to thousands of other people that you don’t know. And you didn’t even think about that. When you decided to get into the businesses you’re in, when I decided to go to law school, I didn’t stop to think, well, wait a second, how am I going to feed my family? A hundred years ago, we all would have to think that. So it has created incredible energy in the American economy because have this functioning agricultural economy.

HAASS: How important are agricultural products to America’s trade balance? I mean, if we’re basically self-sufficient in food and we’re producing all this stuff, I assume exports—our agricultural exports are pretty significant?

VILSACK: Every farmer in America produces enough to feed 155 people. Which means that we obviously produce more than we need for our own purposes. And so we are heavily engaged in exports. Over the last 50 years, American agriculture’s one of the few aspects of our economy that has had a trade surplus. During the last seven years, we’ve had probably the best seven years of agricultural trade in the history of the country. And we reached record trade surpluses and record exports in four of the last seven years. So it’s incredibly important.

But it’s not just important for farmers, but it’s also important because it produces and supports jobs in the economy. Nearly a million people are employed as a result of agricultural exports. So it’s incredibly important. And there is a tremendous opportunity in the future for us to grow that opportunity through trade agreements. The rest of the world is interested and wants American product. And particularly in a growing area like Asia, we have a tremendous opportunity if we have trade agreements that authorize and allow it.

HAASS: So TPP then is one of your priorities?

VILSACK: It is for this reason. Look—

HAASS: That’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

VILSACK: Partnership, yeah.

HAASS: Sorry.

VILSACK: Right now, it represents roughly 40 percent of the global domestic product. It represents about 47 percent—the nations that are involved in this agreement—about 47 percent of our existing trade. But here’s the statistic that I think is most important. Asia today, and many of the countries in TPP are Asian, is roughly 525, 530 million middle class consumers—the people that want and are able to afford our stuff. In the next 15 years, it’s projected to grow by 2.7 billion people. Which means that that middle-class population in Asia will be 10 times the size of the United States. Well, why wouldn’t we want to do business with that population?

So we need to make sure that, you know, the trade agreements are fair, and that they’re focused on labor and environment standards and things of that nature, but we clearly need that trade agreement in order to balance the influence of other Asian countries, particularly China. And I think the countries involved in that trade agreement are counting on us to lead this effort. And obviously it’s an issue of discussion and debate today. And hopefully Congress will eventually get around to ratifying it.

HAASS: You mentioned food safety, so I wanted to put two issues—two more issues—or, more broadly, I guess, vulnerability. Let me start that over. Food safety. Is there—when we speak about food safety, do we mean sort of contamination and spoilage, like stuff not getting refrigerated so we then get disease from a bad hamburger, or are we talking about terrorism, or both?

VILSACK: Well, we’re actually talking about both. We’re clearly talking about the former, because we are obviously concerned about the level of food safety and foodborne illness. There are some fairly startling statistics when it comes to food safety, but you have to put in the context. If you think roughly 320 million Americans, three meals a day, you know, that’s about 900 million opportunities for foodborne illness. And within a plate, you might have three or four different items. So it’s literally hundreds of billions of opportunities every year. We have about 45 million foodborne illness incidents in this country, about 300,000 folks who are hospitalized, and tragically about several thousand die. So it’s an issue that we have to take very seriously until we get those numbers to zero. And we have made significant strides in the last seven years—historic strides—in improving food safety. But there’s obviously more work to do. And, frankly, the science of food safety educates us at a very rapid rate. And oftentimes, it’s ahead of the regulatory process.

On the issue of potential terrorism, you have to think about this in terms of the panic that could be created with an incident. It wouldn’t take much. Or having food eventually be itself a weapon, with some of the current science that allows manipulation and gene editing there is that risk, that it can be edited for good purposes, to make it healthier and to make it more productive. It also potentially could be edited for bad purposes. And I think we have to have structures and systems in place to allow innovation to take place and get it into the marketplace quickly, so we get the benefit of the innovation, but we also have to make sure we are doing it in a safe and a proper way.

HAASS: (Laughs.) I’ll resist the temptation to make jokes about food as a weapon. All sorts of things came to mind. (Laughter.) All sorts of cooking jokes came to mind. But I will not go there. I will not go there. I’ve learned not to say everything that I think.

Talk about food waste. The numbers are stunning when it comes to the amount of food that’s wasted in this country.

VILSACK: Two different issues here. Domestically, about a third of the food is wasted. And the sad reality of it is, is that it goes into landfills and it helps to produce methane which obviously impacts climate. And we have just launched, with EPA and over 4,000 partners, an effort to try to reduce food waste by one-half by the year 2030. And we’re focusing on reducing portion sizes. We’re looking at ways in which we can reuse food that is appropriate to use. Oftentimes, restaurants may reject something or a grocery may reject a supply of tomatoes. Doesn’t mean that those things should go in the landfill. They can go down to a community kitchen, a food bank, and be used—perfectly appropriate.

We’re now having chefs figure out ways in which those foods can be turned into spectacular dishes. We’re trying to educate consumers that the best-by and sell-by dates, what this means. Since I’m in New York and I’m far away from my older son I can tell this story, but I’m sure you won’t repeat it. (Laughter.) We live in D.C., but we have a home in Iowa next to our grandkids. And we don’t get home to Iowa very often. And when we do, obviously we like to have something in the refrigerator. But my son is very, very particular about what’s in the refrigerator. And occasionally things might get a bit moldy. And so he feels the need to protect his parents.

So the other day, he took everything out of the refrigerator, which I sort of understood. But it was when he took everything out of the freezer that caused me some concerns—(laughter)—because I had, like, two weeks ago had just purchased a couple of steaks and, you know, there was no reason to take everything out of the freezer. But this is—this is instructive, because I think we don’t know enough about how long things can stay in a freezer, what it means, best-by dates. So we’ve got this education effort. And we have a food keeper app that we’ve created that you can go online—food keeper app—and basically you can say, look, I’ve this chicken salad in the fridge for three days. Is it still OK to eat? And it will tell you if it’s OK or not to eat.

HAASS: That’s cool. (Laughter.)

VILSACK: Now, the—we’re just about ready to issue a 3.0 version of that, which will also be in Spanish. And it will allow you to essentially sort of self-edit. You may want to add items that aren’t covered by our food keeper app. So I think it’s going to give you the ability to do that.

Globally, the issue of food waste is equally compelling, but for different reasons. It’s not—in developing countries it’s about too much food being wasted, not reused, and not recycled. In developing countries, it’s about food not ever getting to the plate. It’s not stored properly, it’s not handled properly, and the result is it’s not used in the way it was intended. So if we were able to eliminate food waste globally, we would have enough food to feed the roughly 800 million people in the world today that are food insecure.

HAASS: How much of a threat is, one, water shortage and, two, insect issues coming out of global warming and the rest, to food production? I guess three would be global warming.

VILSACK: Well, let’s talk about water. Clearly, an issue. There’s no question that we’re going to be faced with some serious challenges. I was in Vietnam not long ago. And they are having a historically long drought in the Mekong Delta. And they are very concerned about how they are going to feed their people with that. We’re inviting them to California to learn from our own experience with drought, and the historic drought that we are now in the fifth year in California. So it’s a real issue. We are looking at a series of innovations and strategies to use water more efficiently, crops that are drought resistant, ways in which livestock can be grazed more effectively so that we can use less water in agricultural production.

The issue of pests—anybody here with relatives or friends in Florida? Well, Florida is a state that you would normally think of—when you think of agriculture you think of citrus. You think of oranges and grapefruits. Their citrus industry is being devastated by citrus greening, which causes the citrus food to drop prematurely. And it is an Asian in vector—you know, introduced into our country from Asia. And we’re now trying to figure out how to deal with this. And we’re looking at a variety of ways. There’s a tiny little wasp that can knock out the psyllid. There’s a heat treatment on the top of trees. We’re spending a tremendous amount of money trying to figure out how to save our citrus industry. This same issue we talked with the Cubans about. And we are looking for ways in which we potentially could share information.

Climate—it’s sort of a mixed bag. In one sense, climate is going to result in some parts of the world being far more productive, multiple growing seasons. It may change the mix of where things are grown, and in other places it may create circumstances where hardly anything can grow. So it’s—you know, we are now evaluating through our climate hubs what the vulnerabilities are for American agriculture, how we can adapt and mitigate, how we can reduce emissions related to agriculture, and prepare our farmers for that day when temperatures elevate.

We’re also—you know, look, and it’s interesting. We’re looking at ways in which additional heat and carbon dioxide, what impact will that have? So out in Colorado we’re looking at grazing. And what we found is that when temperatures rise and CO2 is increased, it actually increases the volume of forage. So you would think, well, that’s not a bad thing. That’s going to mean that we’ve got more forage for cattle. The problem is, the nutritional value of that forage is significantly less than the current forage. So in other words, an animal would have to eat a lot more in order to get the weight gain. So we’re trying to figure out, well, how do we deal with that?

HAASS: I see. That’s kind of a natural segue to my next-to-last question, which is on research. You have a whole bunch of labs. I want to say something—like, one of the things I learned from the secretary is the reason your apple after you slice it now no longer turns brown is because of the stuff they’ve done. And so say a little bit about some of the things you’ve done, and some of the things that are being worked on now, that you can.

VILSACK: Well, we have two aspects of our research efforts. One is the research centers that we basically operate are our Agricultural Research Service. And they do amazing things. The apple that Richard referred to was basically developed in our labs. And they’re constantly looking for ways to increase agricultural production, ways to make food safer, ways to increase the nutritional value of food, ways in which we can covert biomass into a multitude of different products as we sort of change a fossil fuel-based economy to a more plant-based economy.

We also have challenge grants. We have resources that we provide to land-grant universities that work together to try to focus on a couple of key areas. And one of those areas is obesity, trying to figure out ways in which we can help American essentially deal with its obesity crisis. So, for example, they came up with an option that will reduce food waste and also help on the obesity side. It’s basically taking grapeseed—the seeds from grapes that have been crushed in the winemaking process—and converting them into a flour, which it turns out reduces food waste but it also is—it’s an effective flour in terms of reducing obesity and weight gain.

That’s the kind of things that we develop at these. We’ve developed a robot that can pick fruit more effectively by smelling the fruit and by touching it—by tasting—touching the fruit, so that you essentially would eliminate a lot of the lost fruit that drops because the workforce isn’t there, we don’t—we have a broken immigration system. And until we get that fixed, there are literally acres and acres of product that’s being produced that isn’t being picked, simply because we don’t have the workforce.

HAASS: Can I ask a question that’s close to the tongue of every New Yorker? Is organic, one, different and, two, worth it? (Laughter.)

VILSACK: Well, there’s a lot of debate about the issue of organic. Let me say, first of all, I think it is—I think it is worth it for a couple of reasons. One, it’s worth it because it gives an opportunity for small and medium-sized farming operations to stay in business, because it’s a value-added proposition. It’s the type of thing that a beginning farmer, if we’re trying to encourage more young people, more women, more returning veterans, more people of color—it gives you an opportunity. You don’t have to inherit a thousand acres. You can start small and still stay in business.

It also helps to furnish the desire, the growing desire, on the part of Americans for locally produced and regionally produced food in farmers’ markets and restaurants and schools. There is a multibillion dollar industry that we’ve created that’s employing a lot of people. And I think that the range of is it worth it? Some people believe it tastes better. Some people believe it’s more environmentally sustainable. Some people believe it’s safer. I’m not sure I buy the safer piece of this. The environmental sustainability, you know, depending upon the method that’s used one can make that case. I just—you know, I shop at Whole Foods from time to time. I just enjoy the taste of it. And so if I’m in a position to be able to afford it, great.

The challenge now is to create circumstances and situations where it’s not just people who have a lot of income who are able to afford it. So we just recently announced $16 million of grants under our food insecurity and nutrition initiative, which is really designed to help SNAP families, people that are receiving food stamps, be able to access more fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets and at local grocery stories. And some of that is being—is funding the purchase of organic, making it more affordable.

HAASS: Oh, sorry, I left out a question. Two questions. I apologize. Along with food stamps, say something about how prevalent they are, how central they are to the lives of many Americans.

VILSACK: Well, about 44 million Americans currently are on the SNAP program. Eighty percent of—actually, 86 percent of the households receiving SNAP are in one of three categories. They are either a senior citizen, they are a person with a severe disability, or they are a parent or parents with children that are in the workforce, that are essentially working a part-time or a full-time job, just not making ends meet. So that—I think a lot of people think that everyone who’s receiving food stamps is somebody that’s sitting at home not doing anything and would be able to work if they were able to. That’s just not the case.

For every dollar that we spend in nutrition assistance, it generates $1.73 in economic activity. And in recessionary times, it’s one of the quickest and simplest ways to stimulate the economy, because it gets into the economy within 30 days. Ninety-seven percent of it is spent within 30 days. It’s a poverty reducer. Over 4 million people have been moved out of poverty and it lessens the severity of poverty. It also, obviously, creates more stable markets for agricultural producers.

There is one issue, though, with the program. And that is that we have able-bodied individuals who do not have dependents who we would like to have opportunities for. And this is the frustrating thing about this. We hear people talk about block granting programs and more efficiency and giving states the ability to do great things. Here’s the problem. We give states around $400 million a year to link up people on SNAP with jobs that are being created. And the reason we give it to states is because states have economic development offices and workforce development offices. They know where the jobs are being created. They have a human service office that administers the program, so they know who the able-bodied people are.

So you would think it would be a relatively simple thing to connect those people with the jobs that are being created. For some reason, states don’t use the money very effectively. They don’t use all of the money. And in some cases, they don’t really make even a significant effort. So we’re trying, with a—it’s a pilot program in the farm bill—we’re trying to figure out the best practices in order—and then we’re going to try to compel states to do a better job of linking folks.

The last thing about the program is the way in which the benefits are calculated is very, very, very outdated. (Laughs.) It’s based on what is called a thrifty food plan. And it assumes that every American family spends about an hour to an hour and a half every day preparing food. Well, that’s not accurate. It also assumes that every American family consumes about 20 pounds of beans a week. Well, I’m pretty sure that’s not accurate either. (Laughter.) It’s very much outdated. And it really needs to be adjusted. And if it were adjusted, I think we would probably see even more people moved out of poverty. And I think we would see a program that is providing health.

Last thing I’d say about this, Richard, which I think is really important. I believe if you look at all of the hot spots in the world today, if you look at the places where there’s really a lot of trouble, there are two constants. One is that those places don’t have a functioning agricultural economy and, two, they’ve got a lot of food insecurity. One of the reasons why we have greater stability in this country—one of many reasons—is that we have a nutrition assistance program that really provides some level of assistance and help to people. There’s still food insecure people. There’s still people that are struggling. But they’re not struggling quite as deeply. There’s not starvation. There’s not a deep, pervasive hunger, as there is in many other countries. And therefore, there’s a bit more stability here.

HAASS: You said that you have offices in something like 60 countries around the world, 90?

VILSACK: Ninety countries, yeah.

HAASS: What is the foreign policy of food? What is it, other than to sell American—what is it—where do you and John Kerry essentially overlap, or Ash Carter? What is it—how is food a national security instrument?

VILSACK: Well, I would say in a couple—in two areas. One, in the issue of development. In order to establish relations with other countries, you know, the United States spends time and resources trying to help other countries create more vibrant economies. So in a number of developing countries in Asia and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, we are helping, through the Feed the Future Initiative that Secretary Clinton started and Secretary Kerry continues, to provide assistance to farmers, to provide loans, credit to farmers who are getting started in these countries, to provide market assistance in terms of how to price items, how to accurately determine supply, how to set up a regulatory system that would allow for trade, researching some of the critical issues that farmers in other countries are facing. All designed to establish a relationship between the U.S. and that country through agriculture.

A good example of that opportunity I think is in Cuba, where we tried to overturn and change 60 years of one method of dealing with that country. We’re now trying to develop a relationship. And I think the simplest, easiest, and quickest way to develop a relationship—a more trusting relationship, is through agriculture. So I’ve been down there twice, had the Cuban minister up to Iowa here last week, to basically begin that process of creating a relationship.

The second area, obviously, is in emergency assistance. When there’s a disaster, when there’s a—you know, a huge flood or the tsunami, the U.S. is there with food assistance. And particularly, working on using food as a way of also helping to educate children, through our McGovern-Dole Program. We basically provide food, which gives people a reason for sending their children to school. In many of these countries, but for the food it might be that kids don’t actually get to school and don’t get the education.

HAASS: That’s great. You’ve just proven my point that you have one of the most interesting and important jobs in Washington.

VILSACK: No, it’s amazing.


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