by Courtney Llewellyn

The annual Ag Outlook Forum is promoted as a first chance to get a comprehensive preview of what lies ahead from leading experts in agriculture. Presented by the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City, this year’s hybrid event featured lectures and discussions from such varied sectors as animal health, sustainability, livestock, soybeans and economics, as well as an address from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Tim Bettington, executive vice president and president, U.S. Operations and Global Customer Experience, Zoetis, spoke specifically about animal disease. “With African swine fever getting closer and closer to our door, facilities like [the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF] are critically important,” he said. The USDA is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to bring online a new NBAF in Manhattan, KS. This state-of-the-art facility will be a national asset that helps protect the nation’s agriculture, farmers and citizens against the threat and potential impact of serious animal diseases. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) will conduct foreign animal disease research, training and diagnostics in the facility. It will continue the work of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, off the coast of New York.

“The work that those in Plum Island did for many years has been important to preparing the U.S. for any emerging diseases; we expect to do a lot of work with NBAF in coming years,” Bettington said. Zoetis has a strong commitment to advancing animal health and protecting consumer health. The USDA is currently watching roughly 200 diseases, including ASF, foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza, rabies and West Nile virus. Bettington noted that an ASF vaccine could take up to three more years for an active solution, but posited that there could be emergency use vaccines available, based on precedents set in the COVID-19 era.

As for country of origin tracking, Bettington said traceability is a topic the industry has debated for a very long time. “The challenge with many elements of traceability today is it’s additional cost to the livestock industry – and is it ultimately a benefit at the end of the day? We’re not completely there yet, but there seems to be more and more interest in it.” He added that technology will play a big role in that, with scanning, tagging, etc., which will make it easier to do.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that he just returned from the G20 Summit in Italy, the premier forum for international economic cooperation. “We’re ultimately aiming for net zero agriculture,” Vilsack said. He explained the G20 alliance, representing countries from six continents and 80% of the world’s GDP, are working on implementing a common ag policy. Consensus needs to be reached on the ultimate goal: achieving net zero agriculture by 2050, simply because the market demands it. “There are multiple ways to obtain that goal,” Vilsack said. “We believe a market-based, voluntary system is the best way for the U.S. to obtain that goal.” He said we’re beginning a coalition of other countries that believe in that as well – Brazil, for example.

“We can’t let our European friends dominate the conversation, and just have a single way to reach this goal,” he stated. “It’s important for us to have a leadership position. We can’t put the burden of all of these changes on the farmer.”

On the topic of exports, Vilsack said the department is predicting a record export year for this fiscal year (which is ending at end of September), and they’re anticipating numbers will be passed next year too. “We recognize China has increased its commitments and purchases, but they not have yet met the requirements of Phase 1” of the current trade agreement, he said. “We will keep pressing China for the promised level of sales and transactions. It’s an incredibly complex relationship.”

Vilsack added that the U.S. will also keep pushing for fulfilment of the agreements outlined in the USMCA, and that we want to engage more with Southeast Asia, as it is a quickly growing market.

“There’s a lot to consider before the 2023 Farm Bill,” he concluded. “We are listening – about how to structure an approach that will be accepted at the local level regarding climate change. We’re responding to the concerns that are out there.”