Efforts to promote local food programs clash with production demands

Oct 16, 2009
Efforts to promote local food programs clash with production demands

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack found himself walking a tightrope last Tuesday as he addressed a group of community food activists who, on the one hand, praise USDA for some recent initiatives to promote local foods, but on the other, criticize the department for its support of production agriculture.

So an effort by Vilsack to tout USDA’s local and organic food programs was met with complaints about biotech crops and commercial agriculture by community organizers who want the Obama administration to push harder in championing one brand of agriculture.

Vilsack’s speech and the questions afterward highlight some of the challenges about the dual direction of USDA as the Obama administration works to promote organic gardens, farmer markets and local cooperatives while touting the need to expand trade and help promote biotechnology overseas as a way to increase food security.

Vilsack spoke last Tuesday morning at the Community Food Security Coalition conference in Des Moines, IA. It was the first time a U.S. secretary of agriculture had spoken at the conference, and also the first time the meeting was held in Des Moines, effectively leading up to and linking with events for the World Food Prize symposium.

On the surface, there would appear to be synergies between a coalition advocating food security and the World Food Prize, which highlights global hunger relief. But many at the Community Food Security conference outright reject the commercial practices of major agribusinesses whose leaders will give keynote addresses at the World Food Prize symposium. Flyers were handed out criticizing planned symposium speaker Bill Gates and tying his food efforts to Monsanto. There also were brochures specifically questioning the late Norman Borlaug’s “green revolution.”

At the community coalition meeting, Vilsack talked about the importance of local food initiatives, citing that “local food is a $5 billion industry and growing.”

He touched on the gardens at USDA and the White House, as well as citing that USDA leaders “want to use the entire capacity of USDA” to support the new “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.

“We’d like to see the landscape dotted with local processing facilities and local warehouses and storage facilities, create jobs in rural America, and also the opportunity to create a fair and better link between consumers and producers,” Vilsack said, drawing applause from the community organizers.

Community Food Coalition backers praise USDA for Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and also want to ensure child nutrition programs to direct more funds to buying local products for school lunch programs. Yet, the same people also are upset with the recent appointment of biotech researcher Roger Beachy to head up the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, as well as the nomination of Islam Siddiqui, a vice president for CropLife, to be the new agricultural trade representative. Local-food and organic backers see those appointments as a sign of USDA supporting major agricultural companies.

“Last week’s appointments of those two individuals upped the concern to some degree,” said Kathy Ozer, executive director of the Family Farm Coalition and a recent Community Food Coalition Board member.

Skepticism in the audience began, however, when a questioner asked why USDA talks about supporting small, local farmers but pours so much effort into helping larger agricultural operations. In responding, Vilsack made the analogy, “I have two sons, and I love them both.”

Then Jerry Smith, a critic of biotech crops, cited studies he claimed challenged the benefits of genetically-modified crops and foods. Smith said his friends assured him that Vilsack “had an open mind and was forward thinking.” Thus, Smith asked if Vilsack is willing to consider the evidence of “how GMOs have failed us” and put biotech crops “back into the laboratory.” Smith’s statement got a roaring round of applause from the audience.

Vilsack told the crowd that there are lots of studies on biotech crops and they are “conflicting” on benefits versus negatives. USDA is working on regulations for introduction of biotech crops, and the department has brought in backers and opponents of biotech crops. USDA is trying to develop a “regulatory structure that creates enough protections and assurances,” he said.

“I will tell you the world is very concerned about the ever-increasing population and the capacity to be able to feed all of those people,” Vilsack said as boos began to ring from the crowd. “You may all disagree with this, but I’m just telling you what the rest of the world, but I travel the world and I know what they are saying, and they are very concerned. And I think we have a lot of work to do to make sure we have all of the right answers. Because as the world continues to grow, there will be a day, and we’re fast approaching it, where we will be asked to meet the needs of that population or we’ll be severely stressed. We’re going to have to figure something out.”

The exchange, though, also highlighted questions raised by supporters of production agriculture. Speaking last week to the American Enterprise Institute, Sen. Mike Johanns, R-NE, a Bush administration secretary of agriculture, specifically questioned the administration’s commitment to production agriculture as USDA goes down the dual path of touting local and organic food.

“There seems to be, from the current administration, an idyllic vision of the countryside, without much of a realistic understanding of how modern-day agriculture feeds an evergrowing world population,” Johanns stated in his speech last week. “I would suggest to you this morning that in the face of these and other challenges, we must stand strong in support of traditional agriculture and policies based on sound science.”

Vilsack left last Tuesday telling the community organizers USDA will continue listening to all sides and being transparent.

“You all see one answer,” he said. “I talk to other people who see a completely different answer.” — Chris Clayton, DTN