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Sec. Vilsack Talks about Local Food and Clean Energy

October 6, 2009
Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA

Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA

“When teaching history, instead of basing it on our wars, how might the world be different if we based it on our relation to food?”  That was a question US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Visack, asked on October 5th while presenting at the Freeman Lecture and “Great conversations” series at the University of Minnesota.  Secretary Vilsack’s talk, “Feeding the world: At Home and Abroad,” provided insight into the interconnections between food, energy, and the environment.  To talk about feeding the world is to also talk about local food and local energy production. “Biofuels and food safety are priority,” Vilsack said as he began his presentation.  Farmers in the US have declined by 1.6 million since 1961, but our food production has risen by 300 percent.  Nonetheless 600,000 children in the United States and one billion children in the world are hungry, and 35 percent of U.S. children are obese.

The question toward the end of the evening became not, “How do we feed the world?” but “How do we work toward stronger local economies and communities that maximize what we already know and are learning about food and fuel production so that children and adults will not go hungry?”  Buying local food, whether in Minnesota or in East Africa, helps the local economy and conserves energy.  Developing alternative energy sources can give us a cure to our addiction to foreign oil; and clean sustainable energy production, whether wind or biomass, can bring new jobs and revitalization to rural communities while providing safe reliable energy sources. 

Secretary Visack reminded us that not that many years ago we were asked to go without wheat on Monday and Wednesday, without beef on Tuesday, without Pork on Thursday, and to plant victory gardens so that we might feed ourselves during World War II.   From those lean days, the United States has become a great productive food engine, yet our children are obese and the world’s children still are hungry.  What is the correction that will allow a strong U.S. agricultural structure, without detriment to others, and which would ultimately result in more nutritious food access across the globe?

The lecture and discussion moved quickly from the new federal “Know your Farmer, Know your Food” initiative, to enhancing rural communities through broadband access and more jobs so that rural areas once again become places where young families have the desire and opportunity to raise a family and create vibrant communities.  From the Energy Title in the Farm Bill to encourage alternative energy development and carbon offsets to the need for more food infrastructure of food processing facilities.  From the value and need to develop more urban farming, farmer’s markets, and community supported agriculture to the pressing problem of “getting more serious about water” and the importance of healthy forests to safeguarding our drinking water supply.  These are the turns that Secretary Vilsack maneuvered throughout the evening.  One cannot talk about farming without talking about fuel use and fuel production.  One cannot talk about food without talking about local food, nutrition, and production agriculture.  One cannot talk about energy without talking about farming, energy production , energy consumption and local food.  And on and on because these topics are all intertwined and interdependent, as Secretary Vilsack intimated.  How could the world be different if we taught history from the view point of our food production, consumption, and nutritional health instead of focusing on our wars?  Perhaps it would direct our research, our scholars, and our local occupations toward the solution of “Feeding the World: At Home and Abroad.”   Vilsack said, “The availability of enough nutritious food leads to stability in the economy.”  This is true in Afghanistan, true in our rural areas, and true in our inner cities.

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