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Vilsack charges stakeholders at workshop on coexistence

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was among the speakers last week at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Stakeholder’s Workshop on Coexistence held at NC State. The workshop aimed at developing respectful dialogue between those who support production of genetically engineering crops and those who support organic crop production and non-genetically modified foods.

The goal was to come up with approaches that would make coexistence of these two forms of agriculture in the United States less problematic.

The exchange between two passionate factions of the agriculture and food industry comes at a time when consumer interest in food production is high, and there is increased awareness of the need to feed a world population of 9 billion by 2050. The need for the workshop was identified by USDA’s Advisory Committee of Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society Center hosted the program. The center, an interdisciplinary program that explores social issues and science related to genetic engineering, is co-directed by Dr. Jennifer Kuzma, school of public and international affairs, and Dr. Fred Gould, entomology.

Thursday’s workshop schedule included individual presentations and panel discussions, while Friday’s agenda called for small-group sessions on a variety of issues related to achieving more harmonious coexistence.

Gould said that USDA chose NC State as the site for the workshop because the agency wanted to hold it at a land-grant university, and NC State’s interdisciplinary center on Genetic Engineering and Society was also a major factor, he said.

In opening remarks, Vilsack told the group that it is important for all sides of the coexistence issue to reach consensus in order to preserve consumer confidence in farming and agriculture.

“We’re here because we all care very deeply about the future of farming and agriculture in this country,” Vilsack said. “We are responsible to consumers here and billions around the world. We have a responsibility to protect the environment and rural communities. In short, we have a responsibility to enhance and expand opportunities in agriculture.”

Vilsack at podium
NC State’s Center on Genetic Engineering and Society was host for the event.

While there are a variety of opinions on coexistence and product choice, Vilsack said, “In my view, both sides have failed to speak in a way that advances this cause. And the failure to do so may impact consumer confidence in farming and food.”

Past attempts at dialogue on coexistence, Vilsack said, “have devolved back into bitter rhetoric. And what has it achieved? Little in the way of progress. In-fighting in agriculture has impacted consumer confidence in genetically engineered products, which could increase the cost of product development and deprive consumers of choices.

“We will fail to reach our full potential, if we fail to move beyond idea of one side winning, and one side losing,” Vilsack said. “Each of you has skin in this game. How can USDA make coexistence more possible? We want to support all farmers — to provide them with the tools they need to succeed.

“USDA’s perspective is that GE products on shelf today are safe. Approved GE crops are important for many farmers,” Vilsack said. “Those who wish to produce valuable organic products and identity-preserved products are also important. They want more active collaboration with their GE neighbors. These are some core challenges that farmers face.”

Gould said that during the Friday meeting, participants worked in small groups, providing feedback on a number of current and proposed USDA programs related to coexistence.

“The question is where do all the groups go now that we have left the table?” Gould said. “We were not there to discuss which (type of agriculture) is better, but how do we come up with a new system that makes sense for everyone?”

USDA is accepting comments on coexistence through April 10. Visit the workshop website for more information:

–Natalie Hampton, CALS Communications