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46414

Vilsack: For locally grown food, not against GMOs

Speaking to a group of food activists in Des Moines, Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack got a standing ovation after describing the Obama administration's efforts to promote farmers markets and expand locally-grown foods into schools, hospitals and other government institutions. But when he refused to agree with a questioner that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are ineffective and dangerous, he was greeted by a smattering of boos.

A questioner mentioned concern about the effects of GMO crops on health and referred to a study from the Union of Concerned Scientists showing that most increases in yields don't come from biotechnology.

"It's time to put it back in the laboratory until they do their homework," the questioner said of research on biotech seeds.

Vilsack said he's always open to looking at more research on the safety of GMOs, and he said USDA is reviewing its standards for evaluating risks. But Vilsack said GMOs may be needed to help feed the world's growing population and combat hunger.

"You all see one answer. I talk to other people who see completely different answers," said Vilsack.

Yet Vilsack's main message on efforts to boost locally-grown food was well received when he spoke to the annual conference of the Community Food Security Coalition (www.foodsecurity.org).

Last month USDA launched its "Know your farmer, know your food" campaign to promote locally produced food with programs across the agency.

"It is a USDA-wide effort. It is not pigeonholed in one area of USDA," Vilsack said.

USDA is promoting farmers markets, whose number has increased 13% in the past year. And it's making it easier to open new farmers markets on federal property.

Its "Farm-To-School Tactical Teams" will work with school cafeterias to help them find ways to buy more locally produced food.

It is making grants and loans to help co-ops and rural businesses start food processing.

These and other programs are promoted by a new website, www.usda.gov/knowyourfarmer.

"We'd like to see the landscape dotted with local processing facilities," Vilsack said.

Vilsack said that local production and gardening is part of the Obama administration's effort to deal with "food deserts" in low-income neighborhoods in large cities.

Locally grown food is now a $5 billion industry in the U.S., Vilsack said. It can help rural economies recover during this recession and help improve nutrition, he said, and it also helps create a stronger sense of community.

"This is the glue that keeps the nation together," he said.

After his speech, a dairy farmer asked Vilsack if the USDA is going to reopen an investigation of dairy processing competition done under the administration of President George W. Bush. Many dairy farmers believe that lack of competition among dairy processors is depressing prices paid to producers.

Vilsack said that, starting in January, both USDA and the Justice Department will be holding meetings to get information on competition issues.

"We advised the Department of Justice that there needed to be an examination of a lot of issues of control and power," Vilsack said.

Speaking to a group of food activists in Des Moines, Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack got a standing ovation after describing the Obama administration's efforts to promote farmers markets and expand locally-grown foods into schools, hospitals and other government institutions. But when he refused to agree with a questioner that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are ineffective and dangerous, he was greeted by a smattering of boos.

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