The U.S. should focus on improving how land resources are used to meet increased demand for food and biofuels should President Barack Obama win a second term, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
Global demand for food, combined with a desire to increase trade and expand production of alternative fuels, means U.S. agriculture needs to find additional uses for a greater range of crops, Vilsack said in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “Conversations with Judy Woodruff.” The program was taped today and will run later this week.
“We’re not utilizing our landed resources as much as we could,” Vilsack said. Getting more productivity from land, partly by finding ways to rotate crops more efficiently, would “actually aid conservation, conserve water” and “restore the soil,” he said. It may also help create new feed stocks for energy and bio-based products and “take some of the pressure off of corn,” the biggest U.S. crop, which is used to make most of the country’s ethanol, he said.
The USDA forecast this year’s corn crop will be the smallest since 2006 because of the worst drought in more than five decades, even after farmers sowed the most acres with the grain since 1937. About two-fifths of the harvest will be used to make ethanol to fulfill a federal mandate.
Vilsack also said it may be difficult for Congress to pass a new agriculture bill when lawmakers return to Washington after the November elections, leaving farmers uncertain of the shape of federal programs that affect what crops they plant. Current law expires Sept. 30.
“We’re actually expecting people who haven’t been able to make the tough decisions for the last two years to come back in a relatively short period of time” and make decisions on tax cuts and reductions to federal programs, he said. “This makes it much more complex and much more difficult to get the focus and attention and the time necessary.”
Without a farm bill, agricultural legislation will revert to provisions passed in 1949. Subsidies to dairy producers will stop next week, as well as support for trade initiatives, Vilsack said. Eventually, there would be a full reversion to the policies of the 1940s.
If that happens, the secretary of agriculture would be given enormous powers, “and, frankly, I don’t think anybody wants that” Vilsack joked.
The farm bill, last passed in 2008, funds federal nutrition programs including food stamps, the USDA’s single biggest expense, as well as subsidies to farmers that lower raw-materials costs for companies including Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Bunge Ltd.
In response to a question, Vilsack declined to say whether he would return as agriculture secretary in a second Obama administration.