As the longest-serving Secretary of Agriculture in half a century, Tom Vilsack witnessed what he characterizes as an “evolution in technology” that will transform our ability to feed the future.
The Alliance for Science caught up with Vilsack in Iowa, where he served two terms as governor, to discuss a number of topics including the importance of communicating sound science, what he thinks is behind the anti-GMO movement and why the food industry needs more transparency. In an interview conducted just days before Sam Clovis, a conservative radio talk show host with no scientific background, withdrew his name from consideration to be USDA’s chief scientist, Vilsack also expressed his concerns about the politicization of science under the Trump administration.
It’s widely-established that we will not be able to feed a future population of nine billion people with our current agricultural practices. How are we going to get there, and how can we do it in a way that does not deplete natural resources or exacerbate the effects of climate change?
I think there are three steps that have to be taken. First, a focus on eliminating waste. We are currently growing enough today to feed all of the food-insecure people in the world if we avoided waste in the field, in the marketplace and in homes. Secondly, making sure that we continue to expand the knowledge and awareness of new technologies that would allow significant increases in productivity. The third step is continued research on figuring out ways to continue to become productive with fewer inputs, less reliance on as much water, making sure we don’t need as many chemicals, pesticides and fertilizer.
In an op-ed for The Hill earlier this year you wrote about “the growing influence the denial of science is having in political discourse and domestic policymaking here in the United States”. How do advocates of sound science combat the misinformation and scare campaigns that tend to dominate discussions of agricultural technology?
It involves several things. One is making sure that from a very early age young people understand, and are excited about, science. There is an ongoing effort with STEM to get young people to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics and I think that needs to continue.
Second, I think it is also important for mainstream culture to begin integrating science in exciting and imaginative ways. There are a lot of people now going to college to become criminal surveillance professionals because of the CSI programs on TV. There is no reason why we can’t use that popular culture to make science more believable and less mysterious and to make people more comfortable with what science is doing in the food space.
Third, it is incumbent on those who process and manufacture food, seeds and new technologies to explain the benefits to consumers in terms of expanded diversity, more choice, fewer pesticides and chemicals being applied on the land, a safer environment. We don’t do a particularly good job of making people understand the opportunities that science presents.
Finally, it’s important to tie this in to the overall challenges we face with a changing climate.
It is somewhat interesting to me that on the one hand, people who are conservative in their orientation are willing to embrace the genetically modified crops and the science behind that but then totally deny the science behind climate change. Conversely, those on the progressive side of the political spectrum have no time for GMOs but are all in on climate change. Well, to me, you can’t have it both ways. You have to be in or out. You have to recognize that GMO technology is providing safe food and you have to recognize the environmental benefits from that. You have to also recognize that the climate is indeed changing and it is going to really threaten our capacity to grow and be productive.
What about the tone of the debate surrounding the GMO question? Can the skeptics ever be won over?
Part of what we need to do is to look at it from the opponent’s side and try to better understand what is really driving them and then try to alleviate those concerns in a way that doesn’t require us to turn away from the science.
I think a lot of it has to do not with the science but with the fact that there is a lot of change taking place in the countryside where smaller farming operations aren’t necessarily as profitable as they may have once been and I think people essentially blame the new technologies.
The reality is that new technologies allow greater productivity and we are basically seeing an increase in commodity crop production and that lowers the price, which means that you have to be big and incredibly efficient in order to be profitable.
If you are a smaller operation, you can’t take advantage of those technologies so you may begin to blame the bigness of agriculture. What I think we should be doing is creating local markets so that smaller operators can negotiate their own prices instead of having to depend on a commodity price that’s based on a world market skewed toward larger and more efficient operations. Let’s create local markets where people would be willing to pay a little more for that small farm’s products because they like the idea of helping that local farmer, or they want something that is fresher or they simply like the idea of the money staying in the community.
It’s also important for the industry to understand the necessity of transparency. I have been articulating the need for transparency for a long time. At first it was resisted, and I understand why it was resisted, but the reality is that in today’s world people want to know, so give them information. Give them all of the information, make them informed consumers. Because when they realize the environmental benefits, they realize the productivity benefits, they realize the challenge we have in feeding a hungry world, they may be more amenable in the long run to this science.
Switching gears a bit, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law was signed into law during your term and regulations for its implementation are due by next summer. Why was this law necessary and what do you say to critics who contend that the national regulations were meant to head off stronger state laws, like the one established in Vermont?
I think some people incorrectly assume that it was designed to weaken the standards that were being adopted by states. I think that’s incorrect. Clearly it was a response to states beginning to enact individual legislation, but it wasn’t intended to weaken, it was intended to provide uniformity so that food processing companies would understand precisely how to comply with the law.
If you have 50 different states coming up with 50 different schemes, it becomes incredibly confusing to consumers, especially those who live on a border. Eventually, food companies would decide not to even sell products in a particular market because of the confusion. In order to preserve choice and make sure there was clarity, there needed to be a federal law.
I’m hopeful that the USDA completes its work in developing rules and regulations for how companies can comply. Basically there will be three ways to do this: you can put something on the package that suggests to people that the product may contain GMOs, you could potentially have an extended barcode or QR code that folks with smartphones could use to access a lot of information about the product, or you could have a 1-800 number so consumers could call with questions.
One of the tricks in crafting the rules and regulations will be determining at what point you will be required to do this. If a product doesn’t contain genetically modified crops or food, that’s pretty clear. But what if it contains one-tenth of one percent, or five-tenths of one percent, or 2.5 percent? At what point are you required to affix that label so that people are given information? I don’t know if there is a consensus on that point, but it is an incredibly important point.
As you mention, the exact labelling and wording is still being worked out, but the mandatory disclosures will not mention the safety of genetically-engineered foods, despite the scientific consensus that these crops are safe to eat. Won’t these labels just lead consumers to believe that GMOs are inherently bad?
I think it is going to require, on the part of food processing companies and marketers, a little consumer education about what this label is and what it isn’t.
We are beginning to see a troubling trend in which absence claims are being made as a way of suggesting that those who don’t have the absence claim may be presenting a product that is less safe. In the dairy industry, you’ve got some folks who put ‘no antibiotics in this product’ on their milk cartons. Well, the reality is that there are no antibiotics in any of the milk that is consumed in the United States.
I think this decision to try to distinguish your product by suggesting that your product is safer or better because it doesn’t contain something that is completely safe [is a sign that] there needs to be better self-policing within the marketplace. Consumers need to be aware that someone is assuming they're not going to be smart enough to realize there are no antibiotics in milk. When consumers finally realize that they're being duped about this, they're going to remember it and it’s going to hurt the brand over the long haul. So I would certainly urge folks to be very cautious of these absence claims.
I sometimes take my two small children to the store with me and the odds that I would have the time to scan products and make some sort of an informed decision are slim to none. Are we asking too much of consumers?
I think there are different kinds of consumers. It’s difficult to have one-size-fits-all and [to assume] that everyone is going to be utilizing the barcode every day for every product. I don't think that's going to happen.
I do think there are going to be consumers who are going to be curious and so — whether it's in the grocery store, or in the parking lot, or at home after they’ve purchased a product — [the labels] might provide the opportunity to scan information and learn a little bit more about it. I don't think that's every consumer. I think there are probably going to be far more consumers who are going to be interested in, 'How much does the product cost per gallon, how many portions can they get out of it, can I feed my family with it?’ rather than ‘Do I need to check to see what is exactly in this?’. But there are some consumers are going to want that, and at the end of the day the consumer is always right. So you want to make sure that you're providing information.
The current administration isn’t perceived as particularly science-friendly. How would you gauge the current receptivity to scientific and technological advances within the US government?
I know one department very well, so I can speak to the Department of Agriculture. From my review of what Secretary [Sonny] Perdue has been saying and the actions he personally has been taking, I think he understands the important role of science, I think he understands the significant role of land grant universities and the importance of investing in research. I don't have any question about that.
Governments that don’t pay attention to science often are governments that also misuse the science for political purposes. I think it’s important that we not have a situation in which science is misused, is not supported and not independent. We put together, when I was secretary, a science integrity set of rules [stating] that there wasn’t supposed to be politics involved in the science [or] an effort to sway the science in one direction or another, and I think when you potentially nominate someone who is not a scientist to be the chief scientist, who has raised public questions about a fairly well-documented scientific conclusion, it raises the aura that indeed we're going to be faced with a situation where science is ignored or politically skewed, in which case it will undermine the importance of science and make it much more difficult for people to trust science.
I think it has even greater potential than GMOs because it’s not as frightening to people that you are going into an existing gene sequence and basically identifying with great precision the gene that is causing the problem or that can solve the problem and manipulating what is already there by nature, as opposed to injecting something that nature did not put into the gene sequence.
I think it’s funny that, whether it is genetically modified crops or gene editing, we have no problem with that science being applied to healthcare. We consume pharmaceutical products without any hesitation. The science that led to that pharmaceutical product no doubt involved genetically modifying something, and we don’t have any problem putting that pill in our body and having it do whatever is going to do to solve our particular problem. And we’re excited about the prospects of gene editing to be able to short-circuit chronic diseases, but somehow that doesn’t translate to food. I think the reason it doesn't translate is that the healthcare system and health researchers have done a better job of explaining to the ultimate consumer of the science: this is going to benefit your life, extend your life, ease your pain. We have not communicated that to consumers in terms of the food. I think if we did that, there would be better acceptance. Gene editing gives us this opportunity to sort of learn from the mistakes of the GMO era and utilize a smarter approach.
What are some other innovations that you saw during your tenure as ag secretary that got you excited about the future of agriculture and our ability to feed the world?
I think it's fair to say that we are seeing is an evolution in technology that will service the farmer. It's pretty amazing that you can have a drone go out and help you analyze every inch of soil and allow you to specifically tailor your decisions, acre by acre. It used to be that farmers would go out and treat their 80 or 160 acres the same. They would apply uniformly — the same seed ratio, same inputs, same water. Now we know that every acre is different. If you can understand those differences, you can be much more precise with what you do on that land. The more precise you are, the more efficient you become, the more productive the land is and the fewer inputs you expend.
In the dairy industry, for example, there is a deep concern with a failed immigration system, over whether not we're going to continue to have a workforce that is required to be on site 365 days a year 24 hours a day. The reality is that robotics is beginning to take some of that pressure off of that. Robotics certainly becomes interesting for speciality crop producers and dairy producers that have been reliant on an immigrant workforce, if we can’t fix the immigration system.
One of the things that is not often thought about is that we have so many returning veterans and many of them unfortunately have had injuries from war. Some of them would like to farm but because of the disability are not in a position to do it. But now we are beginning to see the emergence of farm technology that allows people with disabilities to work the farm, so that’s exciting.
There's a lot going on in agriculture. I read a publication not too long ago that suggested that since 1980 agriculture has been the second most innovative aspect of our economy. I don't think agriculture gets it do for how advanced it is. I think people tend to think it’s stuck back in the 1930s when in fact to a certain extent it is way into the 21st century.