Vilsack: More conversations needed with consumers

Agriculture secretary talks about importance of explaining benefits and costs of food decisions.

It’s important for consumers, food processing companies and those who sell and produce food to have conservations about continuing to provide a broad array of diverse choices in the U.S. food system, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on the sidelines of the National FFA Convention.

Vilsack cited the rush to promote cage-free eggs as an excellent example of the lack of conversation throughout the process. Hotel chains, grocers and restaurants made a hurried push to feature only cage-free eggs. “They did this in isolation as a marketing effort without any thought on how the market was going to react,” he said.

Currently, 17 million layers are cage-free eligible. However, Vilsack said to meet the commitments announced, it would require more than 200 million layers. How much is it going to cost to get to 200 million layers? An estimated $8 billion, Vilsack noted.

It is being said that the market is driving the push to switch to cage-free eggs, Vilsack pointed out. Consumers haven’t been asked whether they’re willing to pay a certain amount more for eggs if they want a cage-free option, and when they understand the costs, most are saying they’d prefer to stick with conventionally raised eggs, he added.

“It’s an important conversation that isn’t taking place that needs to take place,” Vilsack said of the costs and impacts associated with different issues involving animal welfare or production practices.

In the end, commitments that are made in reaction to campaigns or social media fall short and instead should be made in a more thoughtful and more mature manner. This allows for more reasonable timelines and commitments to be made and helps determine who will absorb the costs of making the change.

Vilsack said he hopes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s role in studying and implementing genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling rules this year will help consumers understand the differences in prices and the environment effects that come with having products with versus without GMO ingredients.

He was quick to say it is important for those individuals who want choice and prefer a different production method to, indeed, have that choice. “USDA should not say one (production system) is better than another,” Vilsack added.

It’s also important for the agriculture industry, which represents just 1% of the U.S. population, to not be so divided internally over which production system is better. “We need to have a much broader conversation with the other 99%,” he said.

It’s better to respect everyone’s right to make the right market decision, and one that the market adequately informs them in that decision. When this happens, “agriculture wins,” Vilsack said.

It takes both large and small-scale producers. Commodity prices reward efficiencies, and large-scale producers are crucial in meeting that need. Smaller producers are an important segment within the local and regional food system for those consumers who want to know their farmer or support local production. Still, Vilsack noted that this should not be promoted "at the expense of suggesting large-scale agriculture is wrong or isn’t as important.”

Vilsack said embracing diversity is important for the future of agriculture.

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