Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) painted a complex, challenging, but also hopeful landscape of the food and agriculture policy of the United States. His keynote address highlighted major accomplishments: the quadrupling of money going to agriculture development in developing countries (it now totals over one billion dollars), the discovery of 14 different varieties of wheat that are more resistant to wheat rust, and the formation of 70 partnerships between private sector companies and the USDA to improve production and productivity.
Vilsack also acknowledged some of the challenges. In order to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050, the world will need to match the increases in productivity of the past 10,000 years in the next 40 years. Climate change puts stress on crops and livestock, and also reduces the resiliency of agriculture. He stated that we must “challenge ourselves to address climate change in a meaningful and significant way.”
The key areas of focus are applied research, capacity building, partnerships, and markets. Vilsack is part of an aggressive push by the Obama Administration to reform food aid and agriculture policies. Vilsack described a key reform as “combining capacity to purchase American products with purchasing products in developing countries,” which is more efficient and timely. This would also give food aid purchasing power to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The Farm Bill—which Vilsack reframed as the “Food, Farm, and Jobs Bill”—is perhaps one of the most critical areas of discussion in current food and agriculture policy. Vilsack noted the power of the American farmer: 32,000 farm families, less than one-tenth of one percent of the U.S. population—produce fifty percent of total U.S. agricultural production. This bill is fundamental in shaping the future of not only food and agriculture in the United States, but also issues relating to hunger and poverty around the world.
Despite the immense challenges facing food and agriculture policy makers, scientists, and community advocates, Vilsack stated, “The limitation is simply the capacity of the imagination, which we know is unlimited.” He went on to say that we must unleash human capacity and also be willing to share it, transferring knowledge to other countries. The power of science and innovation are central to feeding the world.