USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack answers questions at the Future of Food conference


The United States Secretary of Agriculture speaks at The Future of Food conference. (Tracy A Woodward/The Washington Post)
May 10, 2011

Excerpts from a Q&A session after the agriculture secretary spoke at the Washington Post Live Future of Food Conference held May 4 at Georgetown University:

My name’s Laurie David. I’m sure you would agree that with our enormous health-care problems which you spoke about, we’re certainly going to need our antibiotics, right? And we’re squandering 70 percent of them on healthy animals. Now, the FDA representative before here, and I just quote, said, “We could take action to remove these products from the market.” So my question to you, Secretary, is when?

The policy that we have at USDA is that there are at times the need for those antibiotics, and they need to be used judiciously. So, that’s the standard by which we want to basically encourage folks to live up to: judicious use. If you have an animal that is sick you obviously have to tend to that animal. And we are encouraging that kind of approach as opposed to using them for other purposes that are not health related.

But 70 percent are used on healthy animals, 10 percent are used on sick animals. The government has known the dangers of this for a very long time. This to me is like a low-hanging fruit. The government could do something about this.

I’m not quite sure. How do you basically legislate that?

You regulate. Europe did it.

Yeah, that’s true, Europe did it. Denmark, with due respect, is a bit smaller than the United States. It is not as easy as it appears. And what we’re trying to do now is make sure that folks understand that it’s in their long-term, the farmers’ long-term best interest to use antibiotics judiciously.

My name is Deborah Koons Garcia. I’m a filmmaker. I made a film called “The Future of Food” which is about genetic engineering. So, my question is about genetic engineering. I’m specifically asking about your approval of genetically engineered alfalfa. Since only 7 percent of alfalfa is sprayed, a lot of us didn’t see the need for that, other than it being able to contaminate organic and non-GMO fields. And so I am asking: How can you justify that?

My second question is: Since genetically engineered food is labeled in many other countries in the world, [why not label it here] so that people that want to eat it can, and the people who don’t want to eat it can avoid it?

I’m about to have a conversation with you that is sort of like asking me which of my two sons I love the most. I love them both. And I know that everyone, virtually everybody in this room, will disagree with this, but I think it’s important for me to say it. You asked specifically why I took the action I took? Well, the reason is because that’s what the law requires. And when I took the oath of office for this office I swore to uphold the law.

The Plant Protection Act is fairly narrow in terms of the scope of that protection and the decisions that the secretary of agriculture has to make. When I made that decision, I tried to precipitate a conversation which has been missing and lacking in this discussion that we — you and I — are now having, which is an important and very vital discussion.

We said, first and foremost, we’re going to set up a second site where USDA can be reasonably assured that we will always have sufficient seed for any type of alfalfa that we want to grow, so that those who need organic, who want to produce organic dairy, have the capacity to do so.

The second thing I did was to suggest that there is something missing from this debate. And what’s been missing from this debate is: What happens if my field is contaminated? There needs to be a conversation about a system that would acknowledge that people can be economically harmed. And there needs to be a process by which they can be protected and reimbursed.

Today we have about 17,000 to 18,000 organic producers in America. I told you we had 2.1 million farmers. So, that tells you that it’s a relatively small percentage of the overall farming population. We need a dialogue and a discussion about how those two folks can live in the same world together. That’s been missing from this conversation because there are two very diametrically opposed sides, and the only time they ever talk is in a courtroom. I must be doing something right because — or, I must be doing something completely wrong — because I’ve been sued by both sides of this issue. I’m a trial lawyer, I love the courtroom, but this debate shouldn’t be decided in a courtroom, in my view. It should be decided by reasonable people who can sit down and respect each other and have a conversation. That’s been missing and I’m trying to facilitate that conversation.

What about labeling? Will we get labeling?

Philosophically, in this country the idea of labeling has always been about nutrition and about “known health hazards.” It would require us to sort of rethink that. It’s not quite germane, but it’ll give you a sense of my thinking process on this. We have these wonderful chicken breasts that you can buy at the grocery store. And they’re big chicken breasts. And you put them on the grill and they’re just as juicy as could be. The problem is, they’re injected with saltwater. But they’re natural chicken breasts; it says right there on the package: natural. Do consumers know that when they’re buying that chicken breast that they’re paying chicken prices for saltwater? And shouldn’t they know that? I think they should. So, to the extent that we can get to a point where we can give people meaningful information, that’s important. Give people choice. Give the landowner a choice, give the farmer a choice, give the consumer a choice. And then, let the market decide.

You really need to have folks sit down and say, “You know what, I think if you want to be an organic farmer, God bless you. If you want to be a consumer of organic, absolutely.” But, if you’re this guy over here and you think it’s better for your family and better for your country and better for society and humanity, whether you’re right or wrong, but that’s how you feel and it’s your land, you ought to be able to do that. But, you ought to be able to do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with my use of my land. I think the entrepreneurship and innovation that small producers bring is exciting. But, I also think that they have to live in a world where there are going to be commercial-sized operations. And we just have to have a very important and necessary conversation.

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