10 minutes with Tom Vilsack

The Inside View

10 minutes with Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack is an American politician and lawyer who served as the United States secretary of agriculture from January 2009 until January 2017.

This column is about the "how" of sustainable business. At the practical level, how do leaders make change happen? Tom Vilsack is president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and former secretary of agriculture and two-term governor of Iowa.

Bob Langert: Food companies are becoming de facto regulators, putting various sustainable demands on farmers, processors and brands. Is this the right way for the future of agriculture?

Tom Vilsack: There needs to be a conversation within the food and agriculture industry and within the sustainability conversation to help assure we make this economically sustainable, so that we encourage more adoption. And we must market this in a way that doesn’t disparage and discourage consumption of a product line overall.

Langert: Talk about the economic plight of farmers and how they struggle to make a buck.

Vilsack: The reality is that I am now five generations separated from somebody who worked on a farm. When I was born in 1950, that wasn’t the case. We were much more closely connected, generationally, to those who were working on the farm because we had millions and millions of more farmers.

We had 25 million farmers serving a population of about 125 million–130 million people in 1950. Today, 250,000 farming operations produce about 85 percent of everything that we grow and raise. And if you take the most liberal definition of a farmer, it’s a little over 2 million people. About a million of those would be considered, by most people, as family farm operations. The balance is sort of recreational farming.

In the best year for farm income, which was 2014, where commodity prices were very high and the farm income was at a record level, if you look at those million farm families that we talked about, around 70 percent of those people netted $10,000 from their farming operation as income. $10,000 in the best year ever.

The reality is that those farm families aren’t surviving based on what they make from the farm. In many cases, the farmer is working a full-time job in addition to farming. The spouse is working a full-time job. And, likely, the other family members are working on the farm to help minimize labor costs. So, it’s an incredibly difficult, hard-working life that these people live to maintain their identity as farmers.

So, it’s very difficult to go a farmer and say, "Look, we want you to do additional work. We want you to spend additional money so that we can be convinced that you are running your operation in the most sustainable way possible." From the farmer’s perspective, they have done everything possible to conserve resources and drive efficiency in their business. They have to, simply to survive.

Langert: What is your view of the numerous sustainability claims in the marketplace?

Vilsack: We’re seeing a lot of issues with reference to negative advertising or negative marketing where people are making negative claims. "My product doesn’t contain X. It doesn’t contain GMOs. It doesn’t contain pesticides. It doesn’t contain hormones. It doesn’t contain whatever."

And, oftentimes, there is no safety issue associated with whatever they’re claiming they don’t have in their product. With these claims, there is a suggestion or implication that the other products are not safe or not worthy of being consumed.

Certainly, in the dairy industry we see a lot of this — "no antibiotics," for example, on many milk cartons. The reality is that no commercially sold milk has antibiotics in it. So, if you put this on the label and your carton is next to a carton that doesn’t contain that label, are you suggesting that bottle that doesn’t contain the label is unsafe?

I think that what is needed is a continued platform for conversation and discussion, so that a consensus can be reached, so it’s easier for farmers to know what to do, easier for farmers to access the resources to be able to do it, and then encouraging more responsible marketing on the part of the food and agriculture industry so the consumers are not misled.

Langert: How do you see more responsible marketing efforts coming forth?

Vilsack: One way to do this would be to make sure that these companies are convening those who are impacted and those who are demanding the change. In other words, getting consumers and farmers in the same room at the same time to have a conversation about what a company is considering might be beneficial in terms of being able to establish how this will work, over what period it needs to work, what kind of financial incentives needs to be involved.

And most important of all, I think that part of the discussion that has been missing from all of this is the consumer. "You want this to happen. That’s fine. Are you willing to pay more for that product for it to happen? If you want the farmer to do X, Y or Z on a farm to comply with some market demand, the market needs to compensate the producer for that action. That provides the financial incentive for the producer to do X, Y or Z."

Langert: There are inherent contradictions, aren’t there? Technology is really needed to produce more, yet many want old-time farming.

Vilsack: I’ll use the example of corn, which I’m most familiar with. When I started practicing law in a small town in southeast Iowa, representing farm families, I was aware of the fact that on the best land in the world we were planting about 15,000 to 17,000 corn seeds per acre. Today, that same land — in fact, that same famer — is probably utilizing 30,000 to 40,000 seeds on that same acre.

How are they able to do that? Well, they’re able to do it through technology, through seed technology, through GMO technology. They’re able to do it with less pesticides and less chemicals per ear of corn, just simply because of this technology. So, naturally, in a system that rewards productivity, that rewards efficiency, a farmer takes full advantage of that opportunity.

The problem is that when these new technologies are introduced, the companies that are introducing them only message to the people that are directly affected by the technology.

In other words, the seed companies basically only talked to the farmers and producers about how great these GMO seeds are going be. They didn’t talk to the consumer about this. They didn’t educate the consumer in advance. It’s always interesting to me that consumers have no problem, absolutely no problem going to the pharmacist and essentially getting that prescription drug that was developed with the same technology — the same biotechnology — and have no problem ingesting that. Because they understand and appreciate that there’s a benefit that they, the consumer, are receiving from swallowing that pill. Right?

But at the same time, they will raise issues about the use of technology for the food that they’re consuming. It’s just simply a matter of education, and companies did a poor job — and I think they’d be the first to admit this — of educating consumers about why this technology was good, why it was safe and why it went through from a regulatory perspective. None of that was done, and that created a void. And that void was filled by people that have an agenda or have an unfounded concern.

Langert: Is science being trashed?

Vilsack: The science is pretty clear on GMOs that they’re not unsafe. But, because that void was created, some people were able to plant that idea. And it’s very difficult once it’s planted to dislodge. And now I find it incredibly ironic that — and this is a concern that I’ve expressed to farmers — farmers will say, "I love GMO technology. I embrace it. I don’t understand why people don’t think it’s safe. But don’t talk to me about climate change because I don’t believe it."

And at the same time, those same progressive folks who have deep concerns about GMOs say, "Hey, I’m happy to talk to you about climate and what’s going on there, because the science is pretty clear." And they’re willing to embrace that science for climate change, but not for GMOs. And my point is: Hey, you can’t have it both ways. You either embrace science or you don’t.

I think one of our challenges as a society — as things change more rapidly, and they’re going to change more rapidly — is that we have to have institutions, we have to have processes within government and outside of government that basically facilitate a rapid understanding of these new technologies so that we don’t create these voids that allow people with a different agenda to make it harder to embrace the science. Because if we don’t embrace science, we’re not going to deal with the adaptation and mitigation of climate change, nor are we going be able to feed a very hungry world as it continues to increase in population.

Langert: What is dairy doing that’s leading edge in sustainability?

Vilsack: Dairy farmers, through their checkoff program, have created the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. It consists of the producers and processors of a substantial amount of the milk that’s generated in this country. And in the Innovation Center there is a deep commitment to sustainable production. In fact, there is a specific commitment that processors and producers are making that acknowledges their willingness to follow a rigorous set of standards, including operating under a program called Farmers Assuring Responsible Management, or FARM, which provides standards, information and guidance on animal welfare, environmental stewardship and more.

It’s pretty impressive what they’ve already done in terms of additional productivity. In my lifetime, we’ve seen about a fivefold increase in productivity of a cow in terms of milk produced. And so, more milk is being produced with less water, less land, less inputs than when I was born. Significantly less. It’s amazing. It’s a story that we need to tell. It’s a story we need to market.