Speaking at last week’s 30th anniversary World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discussed the Obama Administration’s efforts to address global food security, and how innovation and diversity in the agriculture sector can support a more food secure world.
International leaders in agriculture, science and policy attend the annual World Food Prize event each October in Des Moines to hear from the top minds in the world on global food and ag issues. The three-day symposium, known as the Borlaug Dialogue, is part of a week of activities. Theme of this year’s conference was “Let Food Be Thy Medicine.” It marked the 30th anniversary of Iowa native Dr. Norman Borlaug establishing the World Food Prize and it drew a crowd of 1,500 people from over 60 countries.
World is moving into a new era with tools to help
“We are moving into a new era with tools like gene editing and other technology advancements,” says Vilsack. “But if we don’t have public understanding and support, future leaders won’t be able to use all of the available technology needed to boost food production by 50% to 60% by the middle of this century, in order to feed a growing and hungry world population.”
“This isn’t only about food security, improving nutrition and reducing poverty. It’s also about national security,” he said.
Recalling a recent discussion with the president of Jordan about the thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing their country, they talked about whether or not it would be possible to supply the refugees with small grow boxes and help those individuals raise some of their own food in the refugee camps.
When you have hungry people, you have unhappy people
“People who are suffering from hunger aren’t happy,” emphasized Vilsack. “It’s hard to maintain peace in that situation. The work we do here, and issues discussed at this conference, are not only about meeting the world’s needs and providing hungry people with an adequate amount of nutritious food, but also about national security. People don’t fully appreciate the power of agriculture and its capacity to make peace.”
USDA supports global food security through in-country capacity building, basic and applied research and support for improved market information, statistics and analysis. “With 870 million people around the world who don’t have access to a sufficient supply of nutritious and safe food, establishing global food security is important not only to hundreds of millions of hungry people, but also to the sustainable economic growth of these nations, as well as the long-term prosperity of the United States,” he said.
At the end of his talk, Vilsack addressed other topics in response to questions from the audience
Approving TPP trade policy would help boost agriculture
Asked about the divide between rural and urban people, he said there is a growing understanding and appreciation for the contribution that rural America makes to the U.S. economy and that conversation needs to continue. “We should never, ever forget the contributions farmers make to our nation and to the security of our nation,” said Vilsack.
Vilsack said the Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade policy agreement that needs approval by the U.S. Congress and governments some other key countries for the agreement to become a reality, is an opportunity for U.S. agriculture. A new USDA report outlines the potential benefits. “However, other industries need to make their support known on trade,” he added.
Are today’s low commodity prices the “new normal”?
There were a number of students from the WFP Youth Program in the audience listening to Vilsack at this World Food Prize session. One of them asked whether the current situation of low prices for crops and livestock are the “new normal” for farmers. Vilsack answered by noting that USDA began sending out $7 billion in farm program payments to participating farmers last week because of low commodity prices.
However, Vilsack acknowledged that currently the financial situations “are indeed stretched thin for some farmers, although not all of them.” He said USDA has reviewed the amount of financial stress on farmers today and “roughly 10% of the farms are highly or extremely leveraged.” So today’s situation is “certainly different from the 1980s farm financial crisis when the problems were much more serious because more farmers were carrying higher debt loads.”