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Agriculture Secretary Talks Immigration, Trade, Research

By Kathryn McConnell | Staff Writer | 26 February 2013
Person wearing cap and gloves handling milking machine tubes (AP Images)

An immigrant farm worker works in the milking parlor at a family farm in Bakersfield, Vermont.

Washington — Because America’s farm sector relies on workers born outside of the United States, the country needs to reform its immigration system, says U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Not having reforms poses a risk to agriculture, Vilsack told an audience of several hundred farmers, agribusiness executives and representative of state and U.S. agencies February 21, opening the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum near Washington.

Immigration was one of several topics Vilsack covered that are of interest to people in the United States and in other countries who are involved in producing the world’s food, feed and fiber.

Proposed immigration reforms would require people who are in the United States illegally to pay a fine and back taxes and to learn English, Vilsack said. The reforms then would create opportunities for those people to stay in the United States legally and provide the work necessary to farm producers. He said that in 2012, there “simply were not enough hands to pick” all the foods that were ready to be harvested.

Moving to another topic, Vilsack called on countries to drop unfair trade barriers. He noted that in February, Russia prohibited imports of all U.S. beef, pork, turkey and other meat products by requiring zero tolerance for the presence of ractopamine.

Ractopamine is a food supplement used in 27 countries, including the United States. It is given to growing animals as part of a balanced diet and has been shown to be completely safe at levels established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the United Nations' Codex Alimentarius Commission, the preeminent international organization for food-safety standards, which is a joint program of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

“The United States calls on Russia to restore market access for U.S. meat and meat products immediately and to abide by its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization,” Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a joint statement.

At the forum, the agriculture secretary went on to say that the United States is pleased that Japan has reopened its market to U.S. exports of beef from cows younger than 30 months and that the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement offers opportunities for a greater opening of Korea to U.S. beef exports.

He added that Hong Kong has indicated a willingness to take from the United States all deboned beef products from cows of any age and bone-in beef from cows 30 months or younger.

He said more action is needed to resolve a long trade dispute with Brazil over cotton.

Vilsack said that after severe drought in 2012 affected much of the United States, President Obama asked him to form a task force comprising representatives of several agencies to study how to mitigate the effects of drought. He said that led to encouraging more multicropping to conserve precious water with the use of cover crops that would allow farmers to get through long periods of drought, practices that can be used by farmers in other countries affected by drought.

Vilsack said USDA will increase its support of research in such areas as pest forecasting and finding out how weather patterns affect the presence of pests and diseases. He said research efforts will extend to how climate change affects farmers’ risk-management decisions.

Vilsack ended by saying that USDA wants “to continue to make agriculture cool” to youth.

“We want these young people to be inspired by the fact that agriculture is the answer to the moral dilemma of our time — how to feed an ever-increasing world population as resources become scarce.”

Woman walking past meat kiosk (AP Images)

A woman passes a meat stand in Moscow. Russia requires U.S. beef and pork to be proved free of the animal feed additive ractopamine.