Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is the only member of the cabinet who’s been there since President Obama took office. He heads a department that oversees a wide swath of government programs, including food safety and food stamps.
In the second part of his conversation with Here & Now’s Robin Young, Secretary Vilsack talks about genetically modified food (GMOs) and ethanol.
Interview Highlights: Tom Vilsack
You say the FDA has said GMOs are safe, but some people would say, we once thought cigarettes were safe. So they just want to know.
“I think consumers do have the right to know. The question if how should they get that information. Should they get it in a way that potentially creates a misconception or misperception about the safety of food, or should they get it in a way that allows them to understand and appreciate the information that they are receiving but in a way that does not necessarily mischaracterize the safety of the product, that’s the key here. We label in this country for two reasons: one, for nutrition, and two, for known risk. So we let you know how many calories are in a candy bar. We let you know what the sugar content is. We also let you know if there are peanuts in a candy bar, so if you’ve got an allergy to peanuts, you basically won’t be interested in that product.
“GMO technology, the way in which crops were raised, isn’t nutrition and it isn’t a known hazard. So if you put something on a label you could potentially create a misconception. Having said that, I think there are ways in which we could have a 21st century discussion about this issue, not a 20th century discussion. More and more people are using smartphones, more and more people have access to websites, more and more people know what a 1-800 number is. Basically providing a vehicle for those who are genuinely interested in knowing an opportunity to find out, and doing it in a way that doesn’t necessarily create a misconception about the safety of the product.”
You suggested a barcode that someone could scan and receive that information.
“That’s one way to do it. It could be a 1-800 number, it could be a customer service person in a grocery store, or it could be a website that somebody could go to and look at information about a product.”
Some argue that barcodes and smartphones are too elitist, that it could leave people out.
“The key here could be to spend enough time to educate consumers to make sure that they were aware of how to get this information if they were interested. What you don’t want to do is create a false sense of concern about the safety of a product, and then at the same time if you’re in the business of selling something to a customer and the customer wants information, you should figure out a way to provide that information.”
On product versions that are more environmentally friendly, but still not 100 percent environmentally conscious
“In think it’s OK because it reflects a trend. It reflects innovation. It reflects a change from a fossil fuel based economy to one that is more balanced and plant based. The beauty of this is that it also provides new manufacturing and processing opportunities in rural America, better paying jobs and it provides more stable opportunities for farm income, for both large and small operations because now waste product that in the past had been discarded or of little value has now become an ingredient in a fuel, in a detergent, in a fabric or in a chemical. All of which, I think creates a more balanced and more exciting and much more innovative American economy, and creates the mind of middle income and middle class jobs that people are talking about wanting more of.”
On ethanol subsidies
“Well, there are a multitude of reasons why the renewable fuel industry is a good industry for America. Let me start with the fact that I was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean watching a U.S. destroyer, the U.S.S. Livingston, being refueled with a biofuel that was made from beef tallow. Commercial aviation interests are very interested in a biofuel because of emissions, and the ability to meet international emission standards. The reality is the biofuel industry has allowed consumers in this country to have less expensive gas, anywhere from 25 cents to a dollar, depending on the price of gas at any given point in time, saved as a result of the biofuel industry. I helps to employ, directly or indirectly, over 4,000 folks. It’s stabilized farm prices and it has taken, in the last 15 years, the equivalent to 124 million cars off the road. So there are many benefits to this industry, and it provides for less reliance on foreign oil, which is one of the reasons why we are now in a position to be less reliant on foreign oil than we were 10 or 15 years ago. There are many benefits to this industry, and I will tell you know we are beginning to see ethanol production being a much more energy efficient and more so than it was 15 years ago when it first got started.”
There is criticism that ethanol takes more energy to produce than it creates.
“It doesn’t. The fact is that we just put out a study that indicates that for every unit of energy put into producing ethanol and the byproducts, we basically get a little over 2.3 units back. So it is much more energy efficient, and I think there’s at least one study that I have seen that suggests it is even more energy efficient than petroleum. Having said that, I do think it is important for us to continue to be on the cutting edge. We’re beginning to export more of this, we had the second best export year in history, in terms of ethanol. We’re beginning to see more and creative ways to produce this fuel. Landfill waste, agricultural waste, woody biomass, perennial grasses, there are a multitude of ways that this fuel is going to be and is being produced and will be in the future that will balanced off corn-based ethanol. So, with due respect to Senator Cruz, I think if he understood the full benefits, if he understood that the state of Texas recently participated in a blender pump initiative in which we are encouraging higher blends of ethanol, that the state of Texas is going to dedicate hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to expand access to higher blends of ethanol, he might have had a different approach in Iowa than he had. We will continue to try and make sure folks understand and appreciate that there are many benefits from this industry.
What is it like to have this massive to-do list and then hear on the campaign trail that ‘government doesn’t work’?
“Tell that to the over 1 million homeowners in rural America that were able to secure a home loan and have the pride of home ownership because of USDA in the last seven years in this administration. Tell that to the 102,000 businesses that received help and assistance to create over 400,000 jobs in rural America through this department. Tell it to the 30 million kids that have access to good and decent food at school, many of whom get a half or a third of their calories every day at school. Tell that to the 3.8 million young people who get summer feeding who might not otherwise get a good snack or a good meal during the summer. Tell that to the 21 million folks who benefited from improved community facilities, more schools, more libraries, more fire stations, more police stations and more hospitals. Tell that to the over 1 million people who were employed through agriculture as a result, in part to expanded access to trade and exports.
“I mean, here’s the problem. The problem is we don’t do a good enough job, in government, explaining what we do. I’ll give you two data points, and then we have to leave. One is that now median family farm household income is at record levels, in part because of support, assistance and partnership with the federal government. For the first time in 25 years, we have the highest level of employment related to agriculture, and I think it’s important for us to make the case, periodically and frequently and with passion, about the fact that there is an appropriate role for government. It needs to be balanced, it needs to be efficient, it needs to be effective and in most days it is and I’m certainly proud of the work we have done here at USDA.”
- Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture.