January 16, 2009
As far as Senate confirmation hearings go, yesterday’s testimony by President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to become the next Secretary of Agriculture proved to be a big yawn. Questions asked of former two-term Iowa Governor Thomas Vilsack seemed soft, often patronizing, during the 2-1/2 hour question and answer session.
Watch a video of the entire testimony:
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, pointed to health care reform as an opportunity for the USDA. “I think we have a big role to play in that in…(with) the reauthorization of Child Nutrition Program. That’s the only thing we have to do this year,” he said. Gov. Vilsack pledged to implement the 2008 Farm Bill–and the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Program. “We can work with our schools to insure that fresh fruits and vegetables are available,” and work with local producers and ensure distributions systems are in place, he told the senators.
Sen. Harkin said he was “heartened to have a president elect…to introduce legislation to require the USDA to set nutrition standards for competitive foods that are consistent with the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine.
Today’s USDA, of course, has its hands in a number of areas-from the Conservation Stewardship Program to school nutrition. But who could have imagined-back in 1933 when the first iteration of an agricultural bill took shape-that today’s USDA would be surrounded by the issues of converting food to fuel.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) got to the ethanol issue quickly. Noting last year’s Energy Bill requires 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2020, Sen. Thune asked nominee Vilsack for his thoughts on higher blends of ethanol in the future, beyond the current allowed 10 percent blend. The Senator called this the “blend wall,” and encouraged an increase in the amount of ethanol blended with gasoline of up to 20 percent. Will the nominee work with the Department of Energy and the EPA to allow for higher blends of ethanol?
Gov. Vilsack noted the importance of looking for ways to expand income opportunities to farmers and ranchers. “One of those opportunities that was presented recently is the whole bio fuels opportunity,” he said. “That has raised some serious issues…about whether or not there’s a linkage with the ability for us to use some of our crops for fuel and rising rood costs. I think that we have to take an opportunity to address that and educate people that there are many reasons food prices have gone up that are not necessarily related to bio fuels. The USDA has a very important role to play in making sure that we provide the research, focus and the direction to meet whatever the requirements are.”
Sen. Harkin predicted a successful confirmation vote for Gov. Vilsack next Tuesday.