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Tom Vilsack on Feeding the World

by: Jill Richardson

Fri Nov 11, 2011 at 11:20:39 AM PST

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I've just watched an old speech (from June) by Tom Vilsack and I wanted to share it with you. Perhaps interesting are the guests of Vilsack - the CEO of Land O'Lakes, a research geneticist from the Agricultural Research Service at USDA. Also present were big wigs from the Renewable Fuels Association, National Farmers Union, World Soy Foundation, and the head of North American corporate communications from Syngenta. What follows is a very rough transcription of Vilsack's speech. See it for yourself here.
Jill Richardson :: Tom Vilsack on Feeding the World

Let me start off with a sobering statistic. Today the UN FAO says that 925 million people were undernourished last year. This is an improvement from 2009 but still unacceptably high. Our goal is a nation is clear: to bring down this number, by increasing the availability and accessibility of nutritious food around the world.

As we look to the future, this challenge is more stark. The population is on the rise, with expanding middle classes and increasing demand for agricultural products. We'll have to increase food by 70% to feed a larger, richer population of 9.3 billion people by the year 2050. What's more, agriculture will play a role in meeting the growing energy needs worldwide. The challenge is real, and our success is not guaranteed.

For producers this is also a time of uncertainty (global climate change) and constraint (of water resources). We know that past approaches to global hunger, which focused on food aid, is not enough. We need to increase the sustainability and productivity of global agriculture. I strongly believe that our nation, our scientists, our policy makers, and most importantly of all, our farmers, ranchers, and producers, have proven they are up to this challenge.

American farmers, after all, are the most creative and productive in the world. Each acre we farm has become more and more productive. America has moved from subsistence farming in the 1920s and 1930s to being the largest agricultural exporter today. This was not pre-ordained. American farmers embraced science. So I would say that principle number one lies in innovation arising from research and development.

Higher productivity need not come at the expense of conserving natural resources. in the last 30 years alone, USDA has helped producers reduce soil erosion by more than 40 percent. Farms lead the nation in wetland restoration efforts. Our farms also capture carbon emissions to mitigate climate change. Farmlands, pasture, and forest resources help clean our water and our air. Principle number two is that it need not be at the sacrifice of efforts to conserve natural resources.

Two years ago, world leaders met at L'Aquila [Italy] to commit to making sustained increased investments in agricultural development... During the two years, the focus and extent of cooperation among world leaders has been remarkable. Under the leadership of President Obama, the US government has pioneered a new, coordinated approach to working toward global food security. Feed the Future, a Presidential initiative, led by USAID, is smarter and more efficient because it is focused to raising incomes and productivity of smallholder farmers through country-led strategies. It is focused on specific geographic regions and value chains within 20 countries so we can significantly invest in priority areas where we will bring about a comparative advantage.

In bringing together the capabilities of multiple parts of the U.S. government, Feed the Future (FtF) is also working with multilateral partners in the private and non-government sectors as well to build local capacity to sustainably increase agricultural productivity, improve nutrition, and foster regional trade. Through Feed the Future, the US is closely coordinating efforts through USAID and USDA. In times of reduced financial resources, efforts must be focused on core competencies.

USDA is focusing on three areas:
1. Innovation through collaborate research
2. In-country capacity building in areas such as regulations, natural resource management, trade and extension
3. Efficient market development through information, analysis, and statistics.

The third principle is that we must focus on country identified needs and the core competencies of US depts and agencies as well as other developing countries and international organizations. As we've seen for decades, innovative research is perhaps our best opportunity for game-changing results in global ag. Research in a climate changing era is working to find new methods for agricultural water use efficiency, soil conservation, and basic productivity of land where seeds are sown.

At the same time, innovative genetic research is changing plant breeding by providing us with a better understanding of the genetic basis of high yielding and stress resistant crops. To confront heat, disease, pests, salinity, toxicity and new diseases, we're using discoveries about genetic information to better predict and accelerate the results of conventional breeding. Selecting untested lines based on genomics instead of labor consuming field trials. In the past few years, USDA research has helped reveal the genomic blueprints of a host of plants and animals. In the past weeks alone, we've published research on the full genetic sequence of two common pathogens that cause wheat diseases. This sort of work allows us to bypass generations of selective breeding and to develop disease control methods to rapidly bring about more abundant, nutritious food to tables around the world.

This new understanding of genetics also helps us on one of the most threatening agricultural challenges - the wheat stem rust known as Ug99. This devastating fungus is spreading across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East with the potential to threaten crops that feed 1 billion people.

The US is playing a key role in international efforts. We have provided more than 14,000 lines of wheat to be screened for resistance to KARI and thanks to genetics, we are pre-screening lines of wheat before sending them for field tests, increasing the frequency for which Kenyan researchers are finding rust resistance in our wheat and moving us closer toward developing new Ug99 resistant cultivars.

Today we're taking another step. USDA and USAID are celebrating the groundbreaking of a new USDA Ug99 research greenhouse at the University of MN. Other US genetic science has helped us lead to a flood-tolerant rice variety that shuts down during flooding conditions but resumes growth afterwards. Developed in conjunction with University of California and IRRI in the Philippines, new varieties are helping transform the food security in FtF countries such as Bangledesh.

At the African Growht and Opportunity Ag Forum last week, USDA and USAID were proud to announce, the US will support an African led partnership focused on controlling aflatoxin. Over 1.5 billion people in the world consume dangerous levels of this toxin. This project, paid for by a broad array of organizations, included $12 million from the U.S. government. This will help us develop comprehensive regional strategies.

Other USDA projects look at heat and drought tolerance in beans. This time I want to take particular note of Dr. Carter's research. He at ARS in a facility on North Carolina has been working on breeding drought resistant beans. We've also had USDA projects addressing Vitamin A and other nutrient deficiencies that cause problems in millions of children. New corn and potato varieties and improving fruits and vegetables. This sort of advance development holds incredible potential for improving sustainable production and nutrition and raising farm incomes.

And because of our belief in collaboration, the genetic research is already available publicly. And every year, USDA distributes at no cost sessions from our seed banks. This is not just a domestic effort. Much is done in conjunction with international partners. Tight budgets threaten progress at home and broad. It's critical that we not only advocate continued investment as well as private and nonprofit sector investment as well.

Research won't feed the world alone. People will. Farmer and ranchers and the chains of individuals who help harvest, package, ship, etc. We must help farmers get the latest seed technology, improve irrigation systems, apply appropriate amounts of fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides if need be, and we must help them regulate the safety of their food systems and engage in a global trading system. Food security efforts must be country led and country driven and focused at the local and community level. We want to engage smallholder farmers and villages to learn their ideas about developing their agricultural sector so we can help them with technologies and crops that fit their needs and lifestyle. We must also understand the role of women in farming, who account for between 60-80% of food production in developing countries. And Chris I want to take this opportunity to thank Land O'Lakes, particularly for the partnership in Kenya that's working on increased dairy production.

We must also make sure that food makes it from farms to mouths in need. We must help nations build safer water systems, stronger post harvest infrastructure like roads and cold storage, and vibrant local markets with transparent information and improved financial services. national and regional governments have an enormous role to play in this effort. In the US our land grant universities and extension agents have helped producers. The USDA FAS engages with ministries of Ag in over 150 countries around the world to enable trade with policies based on sound science and help disseminate sound management practices in less developed countries.

Today through FtF we're focused on increased capacity in [names countries]. These regions were selected based on the strength of their political institutions and their vision for confronting hunger.

Ghana, for example, currently loses between 30-40% of its grain supply after harvest because of inadequate commercial and on-farm storage facilities. To help tackle this challenge, USDA is collaborating with several land grant university specialists to develop and deliver training programs to improve storage systems on and off the farm.

Our own Borlaug and Cochran fellowship programs expose our international counterparts to our American agricultural systems and innovation. For example, in Kenya the Cochran fellowship program has helped the Kenyan Plant Health Inspectorate Service adopt a port of entry inspection system similar to what we use in the US. This is providing direct benefits to the Kenyan economy as America is now importing some of its fresh vegetables. It also has potential to make a big difference in the region as Kenyans trained through the USDA program are teaching pest resistant risk procedures and assessments government ag officers in other East African nations.

US food aid programs are also driving agricultural productivity. This year more than 5.2 million people in the developing world. Our Food for Progress programs are building cooperatives, supporting extension, linking producers with buyers, and increasing market information. And our McGovern-Dole program invests in the future by increasing school attendance, literacy and food availability for children. This is occurring in over 30 countries around the world. We're also building capacity to design manage and fund national safety net programs like SNAP and school lunch in the US

As we work to develop agricultural economies, we must remember the sound ag policies here in the US are founded on good information. That's why another priority must b eincreasing transparency in ag systems. That means establishing data collection, information, and regulatory systems so nations can make informed decisions to establish sound policies, respond to change in food supplies, and reap the benefits of agricultural change.

We support in-country efforts to improve data collection in many countries. We are working to bolster in the US systems for data collection and institutions in the FtF nations so that countries can carry out their own assessments. In Nigeria, USDA is helping with a pilot project to improve sampling methods data collective techniques. As these new capabilities and systems take hold, we believe there will not only be less waste and fewer hungry people, but the global community will be better able to mitigate and respond to crop failures and famines. Countries will be able to make more informed choices. Recent high prices are a good reminder of the importance of embracing transparency and the free movement of food supplies. These measures will get food to the people that need it most and help smooth price spikes. The bottom line is, transparent systems in place, farmers around the world will be able to respond to changing markets and grow what is most profitable.

I'm ending my transcription here, but Vilsack continued speaking and then took questions. Notably, he spoke about the importance of biofuels in the U.S. and abroad. He said "biofuel production in the developing world isn't automatically good or bad." He rejects the food vs. fuel debate and defended corn based ethanol.

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From the questions... (4.00 / 2)
Vilsack spoke of a Kenyan farmer who intercropped corn and beans. He tried to convince him to rotate them instead, saying it would give him enough money to buy perhaps another dairy cow, creating a surplus, to allow him to expand his operation. Vilsack described intercropping in detail as if it was the most insane thing he'd ever heard.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

For large scale extensive and machine harvested agriculture (4.00 / 3)
intercropping is insane. I don't think that you can machine harvest intercropped crops, you have to hand harvest.

Intercropping won't produce the volume of raw material that industries like the feed industry, oils industries (both food grade and fuel grade oils), or the enormous prepared foods and restaurant industries that are so common in the developed world.

The developed world, as far as food goes, is the only environment that people like Vilsac and the people you mentioned above understand. And because all the push is to get people out of agriculture and into cities so that they can provide the workforce needed in a developed country, that's what they push for. Encourage extensive or intensive mechanized agriculture. Discourage any type of agriculture that doesn't feed the larger markets or that  supports subsistence farming.

So I for one, am not surprised that Vilsac views methods like intercropping as insane. That type of farming and life style is totally alien to him.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
What's insane is (4.00 / 2)
that Vilsack thinks he has standing to lecture a Kenyan farmer from his pedestal of ignorance. In the video, Vilsack doesn't indicate that the farmer was mechanized or had any prospect of becoming mechanized, nor does he indicate that the land and weather would be amenable to mechanization. He asserts that crop rotation would give the farmer better yields and more profit, but he doesn't address how that wonderful outcome might come to pass - magic, wishful thinking, prayer? If it doesn't work for American farmers, why does Vilsack so positively assert it would work for Kenyan farmers?

American farmers produce a lot of corn and soy, but many ...

oops, my son just arrived. Gotta go.

[ Parent ]
I know Joanne... (4.00 / 1)
I know..

And honestly, when you see Mexican milpas, they plants are spaced pretty far apart compared to US cornfields. The yields have got to be low. But they input costs are also minimal, and the soil isn't exhausted by their farming.

From a nitrogen perspective, the corn probably won't benefit from the nitrogen of the beans til after the bean plant is dead and the roots have broken down into the soil, releasing their nitrogen. In that sense, rotation might be preferable over intercropping. But that's not the only advantage of intercropping. There's also the utility of the beans using the corn as a pole, and whatever benefits you get from pest management (i.e. the presence of multiple crops confusing a pest, or harboring their predators, etc).

As for the argument about yields, he should ask a Cuban. I'd have to get out of bed and look up the yield boost you get from intercropping corn and beans but whatever it is, you can be sure that Cubans have measured it.  

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
question: (4.00 / 2)
Does he think the EU anti-GMO stance is exporting hunger?

He replied "I don't think there is any question that we can't turn our back on science" but of course weaseled out of saying "Yes" directly to the question.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

For Vilsack's views, see this report from work prior to 2000: (0.00 / 0)

It's the Iowa 2010 report. I gave some context about it and Vilsack in my antitrust testimony or google it and my name.

I think the important discussion should go in different ways.  

1. "Feed the world" is the wrong question.  It's an agribusiness question. Ending food poverty is the issue.  We haven't had a shortage. That's how Vilsack supports agribusiness. To a significant degree, the hungry countries are poor because they're rural and we've dumped on them for decades, turning corn, etc. into a pauper (not a King!) to subsidize agribusiness. with cheap raw materials, even as the US loses money on farm exports.

2. It's not intercropping vs crop rotation.  beans plus corn provides nitrogen for corn at the came time, while a crop rotation does it year to year. There are several kinds of intercropping here. One is succotash (ie. oats, barley, wheat,  Another is strip intercropping (ie. corn, soybeans, oats, hay), which is also a rotation.  Another is the work of Wes Jackson.

3. Vilsack is right if he has a goal of much greater wealth for the farmers in these countries, but wrong in that his method doesn't address the poverty, but more likely causes more of it, through overproduction and export dumping.

"We're trying to warn this nation of a tidal wave ..., and it's coming your way, whether you want to know it or not...!"  female family farm activist in Iowa warning against agribusiness, Donahue Show, 1985

Vilsack formula (0.00 / 0)
How would Vilsack's formula produce "much greater wealth for the farmers in these countries"?

[ Parent ]
probably just greater wealth for (4.00 / 1)
seed and fertilizer and other input dealers, grain traders, etc.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
And that's the second half (4.00 / 2)
of the riddle as to why people like Vilsac aren't interested in getting these farmers to be self sufficient or inter dependent on each others.

You gotta look at who the players are in this system - the food companies, that is the companies that buy raw material in order to turn it into a value added product, and the companies who are selling seed, fertilizer, pesticide, and the equipment to use it all.

If the farmers are self sufficient, they have no need for the food manufacturers, and if they are self sufficient and/or supporting each other with seed, and other inputs, they don't need the seed, chemical and fertilizer companies. If they're working smaller plots with draft animals or all field workers, they don't need an equipment or implement dealer.

That's not acceptable.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
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