Summit focuses on revitalizing rural America
By Veronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis, MO – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced four new initiatives aimed at revitalizing the struggling rural economy.
The programs will provide grants and loans to support the development of farms and small rural businesses.
Secretary Vilsack made the announcement Thursday at the National Summit of Rural America, in the Jefferson County town of Hillsboro, south of St. Louis.
Vilsack said a key goal of the summit was to draw America's attention to the benefits farmers and ranchers provide, and to the difficulties facing rural communities.
"There is a need for us to focus the nation's attention on rural America, if for no other reason than 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties in this country are located in rural America."
Vilsack said that to revitalize the rural economy, the Administration will work to create new markets for American agricultural products. As part of that effort, the government will take a new approach to genetic engineering.
"We want to make sure we analyze fully the risks associated with it, but we also want to make sure that the benefits of biotechnology are advertised and communicated," Vilsack declared.
The Secretary said his goal was to eliminate resistance to genetically engineered crops in foreign markets.
About 400 agricultural leaders, farmers, ranchers, and rural community members were invited to participate in the Summit, which was closed to the public.
TOM VILSACK: The fact is that many people are miles away from a grocery store, and so therefore they don't have the full range of choices that other folks might have, and the result is that they are left to eat primarily processed food. So we have proposed in the 2011 budget as part of the President's initiative, a healthy food initiative, which is really designed to address the issue of food deserts. It is a $400 million commitment between the United States Department of Agriculture, the Treasury Department and the Health and Human Services Department. We would essentially use approximately $50 million of that program to provide grants and loans for grocery stores that would be located in rural communities. We would also work with the Treasury Department to use new market credits to focus on inner city opportunities. This is a companion to what the Deputy Secretary and I have been working on which is expanding farmer's markets and community supported agriculture as an additional way to supplement or to substitute for a full-scale grocery store.
VERONIQUE LACAPRA: Along those same lines, there's increasing interest in buying locally produced food. You mentioned farmer's markets and community supported agriculture. Are there other things the USDA is doing to help create the infrastructure and the distribution systems needed to support that?
VILSACK: There is, but I think it's important to note that the infrastructure that we're trying to create, which is local processing facilities, warehousing facilities, storage facilities, is not just simply focused on a niche market type of agriculture, but it really is focused on all of agriculture, whether it's production agriculture, sustainable agriculture, whether it's traditionally grown crops or whether it's organic crops. We want to make sure that we do a better job of linking local producers with local consumers, and particularly institutional consumers: schools, hospitals, places that are buying food in bulk, may not be fully aware of what is grown and raised in their area, and so if we had a better understanding, we might be able to do a better job of keeping that wealth in rural communities in particular. So, building the demand, making sure there's an awareness and then building the infrastructure is all a part of our Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which is really designed to promote all of agriculture.
LACAPRA: You mentioned organic production, and I do have a question specifically about organic. I think most Americans assume that if food is labeled "USDA Organic," that means no pesticides or antibiotics or other chemicals were used in its production. In fact, that's not the case, there's quite a long list of chemicals that are approved for use in organic production. Why does the USDA allow these chemicals to be used and why does organic labeling not make it more clear that those chemicals can be used?
VILSACK: Well, we are engaged in an effort to make sure that the organic label actually means "organic." We've been trying to upgrade the standards and trying to make sure we were adequately enforcing the standards. So our focus is on making sure that when people purchase something that they are actually purchasing what the label suggests.
LACAPRA: Along those same lines, I had a question specifically about genetically modified ingredients. Is there any plan to change labeling to change labeling to show whether or not genetically modified ingredients were included, for example, in a processed food?
VILSACK: Well, the reality is that there's no study that I'm aware of that has indicated any health hazards associated with GMOs, and so, our labeling philosophy has always been that its either nutritional value or giving people a warning of a particular safety or health hazard issue, and I think we want to remain consistent with that philosophy, because it has obviously worked pretty well for us. And the reality is that a substantial amount of what is produced in this country has been using this technology. And, candidly, there's this debate that goes on in agriculture about GMOs and organic, and, you know, honestly, we need both kinds of agriculture. We need all kinds of agriculture. We need a diversification of agriculture if we want to make sure that rural America survives economically.