National Press Club

Ag Secy: Global food security requires innovation, accurate information

June 13, 2011 | By Lorna Aldrich | Lorna2@verizon.net

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called for innovation and accurate market information to meet global food needs at a National Press Club luncheon June 13.

"We must ensure that food makes it from farms to mouths," he said. "The solution to global food security lies in innovation, arising from research and development."

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 925 million people were undernourished last year. Although an improvement over 2009, the number is still "unacceptably high," Vilsack said.

Vilsack spoke in advance of the first meeting of G20 agriculture ministers in Paris June 22 and 23.

USDA and the Agency for International Development (AID) are collaborating in the Feed the Future program in 20 countries, Vilsack said.

An example of the partnership is genetic research that permits pre-screening of wheat for resistance to a devastating fungus, Ug-99, that is spreading across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The fungus, Vilsack said, has the potential to destroy crops that feed one billion people.

Other genetic-based innovations have led to a flood-tolerant rice variety. An African-led partnership focuses on controlling aflatoxins, according to Vilsack. More than 4.5 billion people in the developing world consume dangerous levels of aflatoxins, which are toxic and carcinogenic.

In Ghana, 30 to 40 percent of grain is lost after harvest because of inadequate commercial and on-farm commodity storage and handling facilities, Vilsack said. He highlighted USDA programs that expose foreign counterparts to American agricultural systems in these areas.

Sound policies depend on good information, Vilsack said. That's why the United States supports the United Nation's effort to improve global agricultural statistics.

A priority for food security must be increasing the transparency of data collection, information and regulation in agricultural systems, Vilsack said.

Agriculture's role goes beyond feeding and clothing the world, he said. The United States depends on biofuels to provide adequate sustainable energy supplies, generate economic growth in rural areas and mitigate the effects of climate change, he added.

Without an ethanol industry, gasoline would now cost 90 cents more a gallon, according to Vilsack.

"The truth of the matter is that corn-based ethanol does not deserve the scapegoat reputation that folks often attempt to assign it," he said. Nonetheless, Vilsack acknowledged the need to use alternative crops for ethanol, such as grasses and algae.