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Agriculture Secretary, Panelists Address Food Sustainability

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discussed the power of consumer choice on food sustainability policy at Washington Post Live's "The Future of Food" conference, held at Georgetown May 4.

May 5, 2011 – American value systems are important to remember when shaping food policy in this country, said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during the Washington Post Live’s “The Future of Food” conference held at Georgetown May 4.

“I think … when people grow up in these small towns, they understand something about nature,” Vilsack said. “They understand that you can’t keep taking from the land, you have to give something back to it. Otherwise it won’t produce. And as they grow up with that value system, they understand their country is no different.” One important method that could help revitalize and regenerate rural America is the expansion of local and regional food systems, Vilsack said.

Video of the secretary's speech is available here.

Power of Choice

Part of the fuel behind these systems, he said, is the power of choice in terms of producing local organic food versus food produced through more traditional farming as well as small farming versus large corporate farming.

“Give people meaningful information,” the agriculture secretary said. “Give people choice … give the landowner choice, give the farmer choice, give the consumer choice, and then let the market decide. And I think over time the market will make the right decisions.”

Panel Session

Consumer choice was also a key theme in a “Future of International Food” panel that followed Vilsack’s speech.

“The power we’ve got is the power in this room – it’s the power of voting,” said Gary Hirshberg, president and CEO of Stonyfield Farm.

Laura Anderko, the Robert and Kathleen Scanlon Endowed Chair in Values Based Health Care at Georgetown’s School of Nursing & Health Studies, moderated the panel.

Quoting the Prince of Wales, who spoke on food sustainability earlier in the day, she said, “ ‘everything is connected.’ ”

“So we can spend hours talking about policy here in the U.S., which is a good thing and important,” Anderko said, “but beyond our borders there are other wonderful things going on.”

Future of Life

She asked the panelists to elaborate on their work and research.

Panelist Vandana Shiva is a physicist and founder of Navdanya International, a network of seed keepers and organic producers in 16 states in India.

According to its website, Navdanya has helped set up 54 community seed banks across the country and trained more than 500,000 farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture over the past 20 years.

“This is an issue for the future of life on Earth, for the freedom of everyone of us, for the survival of the small peasants in the third world,” she said, “[and] the freedom for all of us to be able to have stable food, affordable food, nutritious food.”

Soil Research

Timothy Beach, Georgetown’s Cinco Hermanos Chair in Environment and International Affairs and a professor of geography and geoscience, talked about soil function and soil fertility research in Central America.

He’s also studying how ancient and modern indigenous people used soil in farming systems.

“I think there are some gems of information that we can still use in the modern world,” he said. “One of those is ancient wetland systems … .”

The professor had high praise for Prince Charles’ talk.

Beach said he hoped to require all his students to read the speech.

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