Focuses on Covid aid, climate change; Plans to meet with climate team Friday
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack talked about meeting climate change goals set by President Joe Biden and other topics during a virtual press event Thursday. During the conference call, Vilsack also announced new funding for distance learning and telemedicine grants and detailed the administration’s efforts to address food security during the pandemic.
Vilsack did not detail how he would pursue climate and conservation policy, including a timeline for setting up an ag carbon bank, but he said he would be working with Capitol Hill on those topics. “If there is congressional authority that we need or additional appropriations we need, we ought to be advocating for that. Over the course of the next several months, I’m sure that we will be doing a little bit of all of that,” he said.
Pilot projects and best practices. “To the extent that we can create and support pilot projects, to the extent that we can focus on demonstrations and best practices, to the point where we can potentially establish something like a carbon bank, I think we should absolutely explore it,” Vilsack added. “And if there are resources available today that we have the availability and the ability to use, we ought to be looking at that.” Vilsack said he will be “looking at” funding and authority available for climate change programs and “advocating for” additional funding needed, such as the department’s Commodity Credit Corp., which the Trump administration used to fund the trade mitigation program and portions of CFAP programs. “Over the course of the next several months, I’m sure that we’ll be doing all of that,” he said.
Vilsack plans to meet with his climate team Friday to further discuss the subject and look at how the department plans to unfold President Joe Biden’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions in American agriculture. Vilsack will hold the Friday session virtually as he is currently working remotely from Iowa but could be in Washington as early as March, he said. He revealed he recently received his second shot of a coronavirus vaccine and is “getting up to speed on where things are in the department.”
A long timeline likely running several administrations. “That is not going to happen in a single administration, or probably in several administrations, but the work has to begin immediately,” Vilsack said.
On trade with China, Vilsack said he believes China is making good on promises it made as part of the Phase 1 trade deal, adding that the deal allows for changing market conditions, such as those caused by the pandemic, to dictate how much Beijing is required to purchase. “The good news is — China seems to be living up to its responsibilities,” he said on Wednesday. “The bad news is: At any point in time, because of the complex nature of the China/U.S. relationship, things can happen that might affect those purchases.” As for China’s commitments, Vilsack said, “I think they still have a few days to be able to meet the Phase One, year one goal. Whether they meet the exact amount I think is in question in part because of the pandemic.”
Regarding Covid-19, Vilsack said “the virus has probably hit all of us in one form or another, but it has hit Rural America in a very specific and hard way.” He said data shows rural residents are more vulnerable to infection and death. “And that’s why it’s incredibly important for the Department of Agriculture that is focused on rural development and rural life, to do what it can to expand access to healthcare facilities and healthcare generally.” Vilsack announced $42 million in grants to assist rural communities, healthcare centers and schools through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Opportunities Program.