U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told delegates to the National Farmers Union convention in Wichita, Kan., on Monday that even ag advocates and presidential candidates are having the wrong conversation about agriculture.
Vilsack attended the recent Iowa Ag Summit, which included discussion from Republican would-be contenders for U.S. President. He said he was astonished that the only issue up for discussion was merits of labeling or not labeling GMOs.
Vilsack said he wished somebody had addressed the issue of agriculture's next generation.
"The average age of our farmers is 58," he said. "Where are the people who will be farming 20 to 30 years from today going to come from? There's a good question to be thinking about."
He said he is discouraged by "conflict of the day" domination of the conversation and the "for it or against" mindset.
"I'd like to see presidential candidates engage in a more substantial conversation. I'd like to talk about rural communities and what they need to flourish and how we make it possible for the young people who grow up in rural communities to come back after college and start businesses or get into farming," he said.
He called for segments of agriculture – organic, conventional, beef, poultry, row crops, GMO and non-GMO – to work together to consistently advocate for the entire industry.
"Every minute we spend fighting within agriculture is a minute we're not using to advocate about agriculture to the rest of the country," he said. The audience applauded wildly.
He said he'd like to hear more people, especially at the national level, talk about what the diverse and robust system of food production in this country contributes to the national economy and to the lives of people not in farming.
"Because we have plenty of good, safe food available, people are free to do other things. They don't have to produce their own food so they can be doctors, inventors, engineers, artists and even politicians," he said. "I think we too often forget that our ag economy opens the world up to everybody else to do what they want to do."
Instead of fighting for one practice over another, he said, he'd like to hear advocates for changing our production system explain how they would deal with the consequences of implementing their plan.
"If we change the system and that increases the cost of food 10% or 15%, is that OK?" he asked. "What does it do to the overall economy? It's one thing to think one system is better than another system just an opinion. It's another thing entirely to say how you would deal with the fallout."
On trade, avian flu and farm bill program selections
In a press conference following his speech Vilsack addressed additional issues:
• He said the decision to extend the Feb. 27 deadline for producers to make farm bill program decisions was based on the number of people who had not signed up, but he said it is too early to know if the March 31 deadline will also be extended.
• On Country of Origin Labeling, he said we either win the appeal of a WTO ruling against COOL or we lose. If we lose, Congress has to change the law.
• He said more money is needed in the beef checkoff, both for research and for marketing.
• On dietary guidelines, he said that experts all agreed that the 2010 guidelines had too much sodium and too much sugar and that revisions to those guidelines – and school nutrition programs – to reduce sodium and sugar were based on sound science.
• On Highly Contagious Avian Influenza, Vilsack said it is difficult to manage disease that comes from the wildlife population, and the existence of 58 confirmed cases in a number of flyways makes getting it under control difficult. Eleven countries have banned all U.S. imports of poultry, a handful have banned imports from regions where there is infection. Vilsack said USDA is working to educate countries with full bans on the fact that there are many, many flocks in the U.S. that are not affected by the disease. For growers, he said, USDA is working to help identify ways to compensate producers for losses.
• On trade, he said Trade Promotion Authority and Trans-Pacific Partnership approval would mean expanded opportunity for agriculture, while rejection would make it harder for American ag to compete.