Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer spoke this morning at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Students and faculty asked questions on issues ranging from biofuel production to nutrition policy.
Schafer, the former Governor of North Dakota, has clearly made biotechnology, and agriculture research more broadly, one of his priorities. Much of his talk was devoted to putting his goals for U.S. policy in the context of the recent trends in global food prices-- the increased consumption and demand for meat in developing nations, diminishing grain stocks, and other "grim news broadcast in the headlines today."
These current conditions let the Secretary outline his beliefs that increasing yields will be the most important future goal for countries around the world in order to meet growing demand. In this vein, Schafer expressed his hope that every country in the world will be able to use genetic modification to increase their yields. He seemed dismayed at the "problem of some countries worrying about" genetic modification of their food supply and pronounced that it is "time to not allow political and social issues to run the show" in lieu of science. "Focusing only on risks and not benefits is the riskiest" said Schafer.
One interesting question about the difference in policy needed to address global food shortages and obesity in the U.S. led Secretary Schafer to mention his visit to a food bank earlier that morning where he was able to "go and touch hungry people." He indicated that both the Food Stamp Program and school lunch programs are working to provide healthier food. He recognized the problem of availability of fresh, healthy food faced by many urban residents--a problem for which he admitted he does not yet have a solution.
In addition to a lengthy discussion and several questions about government incentives for biofuel production and the shift from corn-based ethanol to cellulosic, the Secretary highlighted the "new" dietary pyramid and efforts to place it on packaged food labels.
Other questions fielded by the Secretary were about rotation of lands out of the Conservation Reserve Program and the implications for animal health and resource utilization of Confined Animal Feeding Operations.
Overall, Secretary Schafer presented a broad picture of the scope of USDA policy without any particularly surprising perspectives. Although the remarks were billed as being about the farm bill and food safety, he had little news on the preliminary Farm Bill deal reached among Congressional leadership last Friday. It is expected that a final deal will be reached in 1-2 weeks, precluding the need for an extension of the 2002 Farm Bill.
If you attended today's talks, please feel free to share your observations.