USDA's Secretary Gives His Response To Haiti

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack tells NPR's Liane Hansen about the United States Department of Agriculture's response to Haiti. He also reflects on his recent trip to Afghanistan.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

President Obama has ordered his cabinet to put relief for Haiti at the top of their priority lists. Among the cabinet members is Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. He just returned from a trip to Afghanistan and told us how the USDA is involved in Haiti.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): Well, first of all, as was the case with President Obama, all of us within the Obama administration are deeply concerned and our hearts go out to all those who are struggling, those who have lost loved ones and those who aren't sure if their loved ones are still alive or not. We, no doubt, will be in a position when the reconstruction phase begins to send teams down to provide assistance and help as we rebuild roads and the basic infrastructure.

Agriculture is very, very important to the future of that country and, obviously, we're deeply concerned about the impact the earthquake will have on the capacity of farmers in that country to plant crops and to be able to harvest crops. So, we'll be working with USAID under their direction and with their leadership to make sure that we begin the process of trying to help some of the smaller farmsteads in that country get themselves back on their feet.

HANSEN: Now to your trip to Afghanistan. When most people think about agriculture in Afghanistan, the picture that immediately comes to mind is poppies - the key ingredient in heroin, main source of funding for the Taliban. Does that still remain an accurate portrayal?

Sec. VILSACK: Well, I think that the Karzai government has begun the process of changing that dynamic. We had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time with Minister Rahimi, who is the minister of agriculture. Minister Rahimi is a visionary. He has in place a fairly concrete vision and ideas to what has to happen in agriculture in Afghanistan for it to prosper.

There needs to be a greater focus on productivity and production. They need to regenerate agribusiness. They need a natural resource management plan that focuses on water and restoring the forests that have been cut down. And he recognizes that there needs to be a significant amount of change in the management structure of the ministry.

HANSEN: You spent some time in Helmand province, where about 90 percent of the world's poppies are grown, and the United States has tried different strategies to lure farmers away from this very profitable crop. What would you say is working and what's not?

Sec. VILSACK: Well, we did see an example of something that is working. As you probably know, there was an eradication effort for a number of years to try to see if those crops could be destroyed, with, I think, limited success. And so the United States working in conjunction with the provincial governor helped to promote a plan in which farmers were given an option, a choice: the chance to have wheat seed and fertilizer at a substantially reduced cost.

A tremendous response to that program last year, and poppy production was reduced by a third, wheat production was up, and with a little bit of additional help, that country could become self-sufficient in terms of wheat. And wheat represents 80 percent of the cereal crop that's grown in Afghanistan and is a principal source of their food.

So, this was a positive first step. Now, what needs to be done is that those same farmers need to be encouraged to diversify their crop to include cash crops; crops that could potentially generate wealth through exports. There's a tremendous demand for Afghan fruit, vegetables and nuts. It's a longer term strategy, but since there was so much success with the wheat strategy, I think there is an excitement about the fact that there may be an alternative to poppy production.

HANSEN: How do you know that all of these efforts to help Afghan farmers make them better at producing high-value crops won't just make them better at producing poppy?

Sec. VILSACK: Well, I don't think so. I think given the choice, and I think we saw this reflected in Helmand province, given the choice, Afghan farmers want to produce what's beneficial for their families and what provides a sense of security for their country.

These people are tired of strife. They're tired of war. They're tired of having things destroyed. They want to build their country. They want to build a better future for their children. And they recognize in order for that to happen they have to have a strong, sustained agriculture. And I think there is a real honest desire in the part of the farmers that I talked with, and I had an opportunity to talk to a number of farmers in a number of different circumstances, there's really an opportunity. They are becoming more and more convinced that their government could provide them help.

The more they see their government working to try to create an atmosphere in which they can succeed, the greater the confidence they're going to have in that government. The greater the confidence they have in the government, the easier it is to resist the temptations of the Taliban or any other of the insurgents that are trying to stir up trouble in Afghanistan.

HANSEN: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack returned last week from a tour of Afghanistan and he spoke to us from New York. Thank you very much.

Sec. VILSACK: Thank you.

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