Many Americans don’t understand the importance of the farm bill, according to the U.S. secretary of Agriculture.
“This is more than a farm bill,” Tom Vilsack said about the proposed legislation in his keynote address at the Future of Midwest Agriculture and Environmental Sustainability symposium on Nov. 3. “It’s a jobs bill, it’s an environmental bill (and) it’s a conservation bill.”
Vilsack said one way to encourage discussion between farmers and the 98 percent of Americans who don’t farm is by renaming the farm bill.
“‘Farm bill’ sends a message that it’s just about farming,” he said to the crowd in Bradley University’s new Hayden-Clark Alumni Center. “We ought to be speaking more specifically to the 98 percent of Americans that do not farm and explain to them why it’s important to have this conversation and have this policy looked at and renewed every five years.”
Food is a crucial component to the bill, with nutrition-related funding making up nearly two-thirds of the bill.
“We have the capacity to produce everything in the United States to feed ourselves. There are virtually no other countries in the world today that can do that,” Vilsack said.
In developing countries, he said consumers spend roughly 50 percent of their income on food costs. For developed countries, that number is 15 percent to 20 percent.
“Food costs 7 percent of our paycheck,” Vilsack said.
He added that Americans use the remaining 15 percent or so to buy a nicer car, take a vacation or provide students with a college education.
For these reasons and more, Vilsack underscored the significance of the bill as it relates to the economy. Farming drives one out of 12 jobs, he said.
The former two-term Iowa governor also supported President Obama’s recently signed free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia because they could mean a potential 20,000 jobs for those who ship, package, travel with and protect goods.
The secretary then turned his attention to those who live in the suburbs or an urban area, explaining to them why they should care about a farm bill.
“Renewable jobs,” he said.
Vilsack said the United States currently imports 60 percent of its oil, though he would like to see that number reduced to 52 percent.
“When we have a domestically produced supply of energy, we don’t have to ship it from overseas,” he said. “We don’t have to put (our loved ones) at risk to produce an economy based on fossil fuel.”
Finally, the secretary said the farm bill is about conservation and the environment.
“What we do impacts our ability to enjoy clean water,” Vilsack said. “Eighty-five percent of what we consume in water is impacted by what we do in farming.”
An example of conservation, according to Vilsack, is a power company in Oregon that used stream water to produce electricity before it was put back. The water, however, would’ve been too warm for the stream’s ecosystem to survive, and taxpayers would not have wanted to foot the $10 million bill to cool it down. Instead, land owners paid for shade trees to protect the water from the sun’s rays in order to cool it down to its natural temperature.
Vilsack’s address kicked off the symposium sponsored by Bradley’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service. He was the third member of President Obama’s Cabinet to speak on campus in the last two years, following Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
“What we try to do is pick a topic that Congress is about ready to pass legislation on, and the farm bill is going to be on the front burners in 2012,” said Brad McMillan, director of the IPL.
“(Vilsack) was obviously very, very passionate about the farm bill and what he thinks the priorities should be, even with tough budgetary times,” McMillan said.
Despite recent economic difficulty, Vilsack spoke to the 98 percent when he stressed that sustainability should be considered a vital part of national security.
“When you start thinking about this farm bill,” Vilsack said, “you realize that every single American has a stake in this legislation.”
Photo credit: Center for American Progress (Flickr)