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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Secretary Vilsack at the Stakeholder Workshop on Coexistence in Raleigh, North Carolina

March 12, 2015

Welcome, and thank you all for being here today.

We are here because we care deeply about the future of farming in this country.

We have a shared responsibility to the future of agriculture in the United States: to provide for the American consumer and billions more around the world. To care for the land, water and air that serve us so well. To build up and invigorate our rural communities. To respond to evolving consumer needs and tastes in the shadow of increasingly taxed resources. To preserve our way of life.

In the six years I have been Secretary, we have seen a vigorous expansion of our agricultural sector. As much as an enterprise dependent on the forces of nature can be described as robust, American agriculture is robust and growing.

Farms are more productive today than ever before. Within my lifetime, farmers have become 12 times more productive. That means every hour worked by a farmer today produces 12 times as much as an hour by his ancestor in 1950.

Farm productivity drives job creation and contributes to economic growth not just in our rural communities, but all across the nation. Our farms and ranches have made the United States a leader on the world stage.

The world's population is growing at a net rate of 6 million more people per month. To put that in perspective: that's roughly twice the population of my home state of Iowa. Farmers rise to the challenge of feeding them three times a day.

There are few people who can say that their work touches every single person on this planet, every single day. But farmers do. No one else is better at that job than America's producers.

Farmers are powerful, but their charge is not without its challenges. Today's farmer is placed in a starring role when it comes to addressing resource concerns and adapting to a changing climate. Some face record drought, while others are taken to the brink by severe storms.

We have more mouths to feed, and the resources to do it become more limited every day—which is why the conversation about the future of agriculture must include diversity in producers and production methods.

Farmers are also increasingly accountable to a nation and a world of non-farmers. Today's consumer is constantly asked to rate their experience—from Yelp to Amazon to Netflix. They are invited to give feedback, and they expect responsive changes and adjustments from the companies that receive their business.

Consumers are motivated, they are engaged, they are conscientious and they have access to more information about everything, including their food, than ever before.

This is not a bad thing. Consumers can and should be our partners. Consumers have a stake in what happens on farms and ranches. They are interested, and have a right to know, about their food: where it was grown, the impact of its production on the land, how it will impact their health, how it was cultivated.

Consumers also expect a wide variety of choices. They are bombarded with information that helps them make their selections—from health claims, to ingredients listed on the side of the package, to labels, to price tags.

Consumers rightfully expect that the product they choose to purchase matches their expectations. American agriculture has a responsibility to meet those expectations.

That's why restarting this conversation about coexistence is so important. There is a diversity of opinions and motivations on coexistence issues—as there should be.

Unfortunately, both sides of the debate have failed to truly speak about these issues in a way that advances the conversation. It is confusing, it does little to advance the interests of either side, and it negatively impacts consumer confidence.

It is also unfortunately the case that this divisive sort of debating is also going on within the ranks of agriculture. I'll give an example: In November 2013, to help gather information on how best to spearhead an outreach and education effort around coexistence as called for by the AC21, USDA published a notice requesting input from the public on a number of topics.

Our hope was to get substantive comments where farmers laid out the challenges they face, and suggested ways that USDA can help.

Unfortunately, in the majority of those comments, and in much of the ongoing public dialogue, the conversation about coexistence appears to be backsliding towards more inflexible and strident contrasting positions. It's devolved into bitter rhetoric about what is "good" and "bad", or "right" and wrong." Very rarely is the world so black and white, and agriculture is no exception.

Both sides of this issue have fought one another for the last five years and what has it achieved? Very little in the way of progress, and while that time was spent battling, opportunities have been missed.

This infighting has impacted consumer confidence and trust—not only in GE products but in organic and non-GE products as well.

I am personally concerned that this attention and controversy will increase the costs of product development and ultimately deprive farmers of the tools they need to stay competitive.

I think that this lack of common ground also increases the likelihood and risk of litigation. Litigation potentially leads to the courts deciding who gets to farm and in exactly what way.

We cannot continue down this path as a divided industry. It's not sustainable and it's bad for business. American agriculture will fail to reach its fullest potential as an industry if we do not move past the heated rhetoric and focus on developing real solutions. Coexistence has to be more than a buzzword. It is our only viable option.

That is why it's time to move beyond this idea of one side winning and one side losing. There is a better way: a solution that acknowledges agriculture's complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.

USDA takes the issue of coexistence seriously. We have invested a lot of time and resources in developing reasonable and practical solutions.

We know that farmers take it seriously too, which is why we're gathered here today. Each of you are experts in your fields. You are passionate and have strong feelings. You each have skin in the game in the conversation about coexistence.

Today is about kick-starting a more stable, measured conversation about how we move forward. To discuss how USDA can help make coexistence more achievable and become a basic and routine consideration for all stakeholders.

USDA's purpose, first and foremost, is to support all farmers and give them the tools and technologies they need to succeed. We support farmer choice. Organic, conventional, and biotech should all be viable options for producers. All three types of agriculture are important for consumers, for farmers, and for the health of rural communities.

From USDA's perspective, those GE products on the market today that have completed a stringent review by government regulatory agencies are as safe as any other products out there. We will have some conversations around these conclusions today and around some of the concerns about their use but ultimately this meeting ought not to be a conversation about the safety of GE crops.

Approved GE crops are important for many American farmers, and those who wish to plant them should have the freedom to do so. Those who wish to produce for organic and non-GE markets, and their customers, should be free to do so as well.

Some organic farmers and farmers growing identity-preserved, non-GE crops assert that the presence of nearby GE crops has made it difficult for them to produce products that meet their customers' specifications. They assert that they have experienced shipment rejections because of unintended GE presence at a testing destination.

They have expressed a desire for more active collaboration with their GE crop growing neighbors to help enable them to meet their customers' needs, or, failing that, for more government involvement to mandate such actions.

We recognize the increasing challenges that all farmers face, and the practical challenges of producing products that are being scrutinized ever-more closely by policymakers, lawmakers and the public.

Those are, at their core, challenges all farmers share, no matter their production method. They have a responsibility to consumers and to one another. That's being a good neighbor and it's also smart business.

Today, USDA will present the activities and tools we have been working on but ultimately we cannot solve this problem alone. It will depend on cooperation across all forms of agriculture.

In 2011, I brought back USDA's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) to take a shot at addressing the frictions that are reflected at the farm level when neighboring producers are trying to meet very different market demands.

A number of the members of that body are in attendance today, but this is not an AC21 meeting. We have brought a wider group of stakeholders together to convene a public dialogue, but I would like to take a moment to touch on some of the work USDA has done to follow up on AC21 recommendations because I think it has bearing on our conversation today.

Through the tireless work of Russell Redding, the AC21 Chair, whom you'll hear from in a little while, the AC21 produced a near consensus report. It contained a balanced package of recommendations in the areas of risk management, stewardship and outreach, research, and seed quality.

When I received the report from Russell and the committee, I committed that USDA would implement recommendations where we were able. At this meeting, we will describe our progress in doing so and some of the challenges we still face. Achieving some of the recommendations will require a long term commitment and perhaps additional legal authorities from Congress.

Overall, USDA has made progress on each of the main recommendations in the report. We recognize that the ability to produce crops and products starts with access to high-quality, locally-adapted seed that fits the appropriate production method. So we have restarted the National Genetic Resources Advisory Council to help us work on seed availability.

We have created new crop insurance options for organic farmers. We are beginning to gather data on economic losses associated with unintended GE presence. We also continue to support the development of new technology—GE and non-GE—that meets farmers' needs.

That's a start—and it's what USDA can do within our limited means and authority. But today is about restarting a broader conversation about what mutual success looks like.

For conventional and biotech interests, that means acknowledging the promise and importance of new technology while also acknowledging that there is an economic issue that some farmers have experienced because of unintended GE presence.

For non-GE and organic interests, while acknowledging the importance of your products to fulfilling consumer demand and biodiversity, it means acknowledging that there is room in the marketplace and in agricultural production for both biotechnology-derived crops and non-biotech crops.

Anything less—messages of fear or all-or-nothing campaigns—are counter-productive and will not bring about a viable solution. Websites and organizations that exist solely to discredit one another and spread partisanship increase the costs of doing business on both sides, increase public distrust of all agriculture, and increase consumer uncertainty about the safety of our food supply.

When farmers target each other, we are actually making all of agriculture a target. That's simply bad business.

It is imperative for us to find common ground on the coexistence issue. To do so, we have to listen hard to one another. We have to think big picture about how to advance a diverse agriculture that is ready to meet the challenges of the future.

Accordingly, USDA is here today to share information, listen to constructive feedback, and make commitments to further action. In short, we are here today to chart the path forward.

I am fully aware of the difficulty some have faced in even coming to this meeting. You are likely under pressure to adopt rigid positions and not to compromise. I appreciate that you made the choice to attend this meeting. I hope that everyone is here today with an open mind and a willingness to be open to envisioning future compromises.

In the long term, we need farmers and stakeholders to be forthright and forthcoming about the problems agriculture faces and how together, we fix this in a way that respects the needs of everyone involved and ensures that all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe.

Today, I am here to recognize a simple fact: we need diversity in agriculture. Diversity in production methods, crops produced, and in the farming community itself. Failing to recognize and act on that fact compromises both agriculture's future and the future of our entire nation.


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