The Role of Public Research Universities in Addressing International Food Security

The United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke to more than 400 people at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus Sept. 10, 2015, about the university’s role in addressing international food security.

View the recorded lecture here

Vilsack expressed his admiration for Illinois’ existing initiatives, outlined the great challenges associated with climate change and the world’s growing population, and inspired the students to do whatever they can to make sufficient, safe, nutritious food accessible to everyone.  

In reference to existing work on food security at U of I , Vilsack said, “You have a remarkable set of initiatives. As I speak about what we are doing [at the United States Department of Agriculture] you will be mentally checking off a list of the extraordinary work you are simultaneously doing.”

Speaking about alleviating hunger in the context of a changing climate, Vilsack said, “We will need to change everything we know, including the crops we grow, where we grow them, and growing seasons. We will need to consider double planting. Additionally, we will be embarking on a series of strategies to reduce greenhouse gases.”

As strategies for adjusting to changing climate, he listed 1) soil health, replenishing, nourishing, and managing nutrients; 2) rotating grazing of livestock, and 3) irrigation methods. He said that all of these technical approaches can have greater impact with the use of precision agriculture. By using Global Positioning Systems, drones and other equipment to customize farming inputs can be targeted to the specific needs of specific plots of land and improve yield. “Like every person sitting in this room, every acre is different. We have to understand the difference.”

Looking beyond the United States, Vilsack said “Our international strategies have found their way into the Feed the Future program.” He used Kenya as an example of where he has seen crop rotation introduced and farming practices made more sustainable and profitable.

Vilsack envisions a world where the food produced is stored and managed properly and where farmers are fairly compensated. Mentioning food waste several times, Vilsack said he wanted to campaign against this issue in the same way they did against littering during his childhood. “We put all these inputs in and one third of our food doesn’t get used as intended. This is not acceptable,” he said.

He mentioned the USDA FoodKeeper app as one tool to help reduce waste by enabling consumers to determine what stored foods really need to be discarded and what is safe to eat.

Vilsack then took questions from the audience, not leaving until all of the questions were answered. To some controversial questions, he added, that unfortunately “too often in this country we don’t have conversations, we have debates.”

In his answers, he continued to refer to the capacity of U of I.  Reflecting on his earlier tour of the campus Energy Farm, he said, “There’s not a citizen in this country who wouldn’t be impressed by what I walked through today.”

Vilsack concluded by admitting he had never known hunger, even when he was adopted from an orphanage as a “plump boy.” He urged the audience to think of those who do know hunger and inspired the students in the audience to meet the challenge global hunger presents.

“There are so many opportunities for bright young people,” he said. “It’s a great time to be a part of something that will save and change the world. Being here at this university right now is not just an opportunity but a responsibility. Your generation can become the first generation to ensure food security here and abroad.”

The event was hosted by the International Food Security at Illinois (IFSI) initiative and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).


Tom Vilsack serves as the Nation's 30th Secretary of Agriculture and leader of the U..S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In more than six years at the department, Vilsack has worked to implement President Obama's agenda to put Americans back to work and create a stronger economy. USDA has supported America's farmers, ranchers, and growers who are driving the rural economy forward, provided food assistance to millions of Americans, carried out large conservation efforts, made record investments in rural communities, and helped provide a safe, sufficient, and nutritious food supply for the American people. Prior to his appointment, Vilsack served two terms as the Governor of Iowa, in the Iowa State Senate and as the mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

The International Food Security Initiative (IFSI) is a program of the Office of International Programs in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that seeks to focus the expertise and resources of the university to address the global challenge of ensuring that all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to achieve their human potential.