Exchange of views with Tom Vilsack, USA Secretary of Agriculture

Members of the Committee welcomed the U.S. Secretary for Agriculture Tom Vilsack and exchanged views on the transatlantic relations in regards to food and agriculture, notably on trade, sustainability targets, and the CAP.

Vilsack started its opening remarks by reminding the importance of the trade relation with the EU both for the US and the whole world, considering the amount of food exchanged and the role that has in feeding domestic and foreign consumers. He also stated that the US is committed to more sustainable and resilient way of production, pointing out that the US and the EU have the same goal, but might have different ways to reach it.

Vilsack explained how the US agriculture will reach the sustainability targets under his mandate: after decades under which the US administrations focused on productivity and higher yields, data shows that this method is not sustainable economically for farmers, given that 90% of farms do not generate enough incomes to sustain their families, and that nearly 50% of farms do not generate any profits at all in the US, the times for a new method of agriculture system has arrived. A system that takes into account all the three aspects of sustainability, namely economic, social, and environmentally.

The focus will be on new and better markets and segments: more support to local & regional markers (so to reduce the travelling costs and related emissions), to small farmers and enhance cooperation. They will link individual consumers and institutional procurement (schools programmes will purchase food locally); a higher focus on processing capacity so to have more transparency and support small and middle size processing capacities in local areas. Financial support to conservation programmes; efforts aimed at preserving 30% of the land while collaborating with farmers and ranchers. He stressed that they are looking for creative ways to compensate farmers for their sequestration capacity efforts; establish carbon markets for farming; provide real incentives for a market that will benefit them; increase funding on R&I to this end (sequestration, resilience, soil health and water quality, etc). He mentioned the opportunities related to food waste and it potential to be converted into something more valuable such as energy, material, chemicals so to produce another revenue for farmers.

All along, the US should be kept involved in international trade, pointing out that the relationship with the EU is fruitful, but it does involve difficult aspects that have to be solved. It will be important to face these difficulties and to keep the dialogue open.

He underlined the Important role of forestry (challenge of wild fires), reforestation, protect green areas, expanding market opportunities into new trading, ways to reduce the carbon print of biofuels, as well as R&I financing to be increased to find more sustainable methods and practices. The US government will favour public research since it is easier for farmers to access it. The US secretary showed openness in increasing the cooperation in this field, mentioning the significant opportunities in gene editing for sustainability targets.

MEPs took the floor:

Dorfmann (EPP) said that many topics on the agenda of the US Secretary are shared by the EU, notably on the targets aimed at reducing the emissions in agriculture. On this topic, the MEP mentioned the Farm to Fork Strategy and asked for the Secretary’s perspective of this European initiative, and how, if implemented, trade relations will be affected.

DeCastro (S&D) started his intervention by thanking the US Secretary and his colleagues for the agreed moratorium on tariffs; according to De Castro, the Biden administration opens to a new age of cooperation. He pointed out that many of the things that the US official mentioned are part of the CAP reform, notably the environmental, social and economic sustainability. The MEP reminded the threats that China is posing, and stressed that innovation is the pathway, notably thanks to NGTs, if we want to reach the targets set in the Green Deal.

Müller (Renew) said that the F2F will have consequences on trade relations, on import and exports balances and asked what problems would the implementation of this strategy led to.

Häusling (Greens) repeated that the tensions that the EU-US relation had in recent years are now over and this is the very good news. F2F strategy is very ambitious, and questioned if te US had the same level of commitment. He said that his group has different views on organic farming, and regretted that this way of farming was not mentioned by the Secretary, considering the important EU support to this sector. He also mentioned that different views are on hormones in beef, GMO, cloning, etc.

Kuzmiuk (ECR) called on the truce on trade issues to make it permanent, and said that EU countries should all be treated equally and have the same access to the US market.

Zoido-Álvarez (EPP) and Aguilera (S&D) mentioned that, despite the tariff moratorium, the Spanish black anchovies were still affected by protections measures and asked to remove it.

Sander (EPP) underlined that, even if the fights that decision-makers decided to pick in agriculture are the same on both sides of the Atlantic, the ways to get there is different. She pointed out that the EU has taken an ambitious approach but it misses pragmatism and it has to refer to studies made by US services. She asked, then, what is the US opinion on the approach that EU is taking in its agriculture.

VILSACK answered to some of the points raised by MEPs: on trade issues, sanitary and phytosanitary issues as well that affect the trade. He stressed that he is committed to an agriculture that is more productive, profitable, sustainable, and gene editing is a possible way. He pointed out that it is difficult to access the EU market, but looking from the US point of view, they recorded significant deficit in trade balance in the agriculture sector with the EU: if the US Congress has to vote for a trade deal, it has to be assured the access to the EU market fully. The discussions should keep going.

F2F has been evaluated from their perspective and admitted that there might be some issues, notably on the economic side of agriculture (lower incomes, productivity and exports). He shared his worries on the fact if farmers actually embrace this strategy. At any rate, the focus should be on market, science and incentive-based system. He supports diversity in the methods of agriculture production (organic, traditional, agroforestry, etc, …) but the point is not to choose one method over the other, but tools that will be given to farmers to do the transition if they want.