DES MOINES, Iowa, Oct. 13, 2016 - Surrounded by international leaders focused on global food security, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that one of the biggest concerns he has about addressing future food challenges is “our ability to embrace science.”
“Underlying the debate over biotechnology has been a distrust and uncertainty about the science,” Vilsack told attendees at a three-day international symposium here – the Borlaug Dialogue – which regularly draws over 1,200 people from 60 countries to discuss cutting-edge issues in global food security.
This year – the 30th anniversary of Dr. Norman Borlaug establishing the World Food Prize – the conference is organized around the theme, “Let Food be Thy Medicine.”
Vilsack said “we are now moving into a new era,” with tools like gene editing, and he expressed concerns that – without public understanding and support – future leaders won’t be able to use all of the available new technology needed to boost food production by 50 to 60 percent by mid-century, in order to feed a growing and hungry world population.
“It’s not just about food security, nutrition, or poverty reduction, it’s about national security,” he explained.
Vilsack recalled a recent discussion with the president of Jordan about the thousands of Syrian refugees and whether or not it was possible to bring in small grow boxes and help those individuals raise some of their own food within their refugee camp.
“When you have hungry people, you have unhappy people. The work we do here, it’s about making the world a safer and better place,” the secretary said. “We don’t fully appreciate the power of agriculture and its capacity to make peace.”
Vilsack addressed a wide variety of other topics in response to questions from the audience. Here are a few highlights:
Asked about the rural/urban divide, he said there has been a growing understanding and appreciation for the contribution that rural America makes to the U.S. economy and that’s a conversation that has to be renewed. “Never, ever forget the contributions that farmers make to our nation and the security of the nation.”
He said agriculture has a real opportunity with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and cited a new USDA report that shows substantial benefits for dairy as an example. “Other industries need to make their support known on trade,” he said.
A student asked about whether low commodity prices are the “new normal” for farmers. Vilsack said the government is sending out $7 billion to farmers this week because of low commodity prices while acknowledging that “things are for some, but not for all, stretched.” He said the department has reviewed the amount of financial stress in farm country and “roughly 10 percent are highly or extremely leveraged” so it is “certainly different from the 1980s” when the problems were much more serious.
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