Former secretaries: Confront farming's critics with facts

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, February 29, 2012 -More than 2,000 people turned out for USDA's annual Agricultural Outlook Forum last week to hear the projections of agriculture's paramount analytical organization. But this year's program offered a rare extra - the perspectives of seven former secretaries of agriculture on meeting global food demand, the federal budget squeeze, a new farm bill, “sustainable agriculture” and the tension between modern farming and its critics.

Each provided personal recollections and unique views about the challenges facing farms and ranches today but showed solidarity in the belief that increasing production to meet the needs of billions more people in the coming years will be the greatest test. I've got a tremendous challenge to make the case that food security is about national security,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who was secretary in the second term of the Bush Administration. “The biggest challenge is the research budget,” said Dan Glickman, who served in the Clinton Administration. “Do we have the capability of another green revolution? Do we have the resources? Are the taxpayers willing to fund these things?”

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Those comments were underscored by Ann M. Veneman and Ed Schaefer, both of whom were in

the second Bush Administration, “Do we have the technology to feed a growing population?” Veneman asked. Maintaining the budget for food safety and research is critical, she said. “Those are the programs that protect American agriculture.” Schaefer added, “Hungry people make for unstable situations.” But agriculture will be challenged to “produce more without more land and without more water,” he said.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack steered the Thursday morning discussion to problems he grapples with now, asking his predecessors how they might deal with disagreement over what's required to increase productivity. “There's obviously tension and animosity” among different interest groups, he said.

“We need to gets the facts out,” said Clayton K. Yeutter, who was secretary in the first Bush Administration. “There's too much emotion. We have to try to take some of that emotion out if we can.” He offered Vilsack some sympathy. “You have a lot of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] on your back, much more so than when I was secretary. When they say the wrong thing, we've got to call them on it.”

Glickman sounded a similar note. “One of the ways is being transparent and open and willing to engage, and to make sure that we have the facts on our side,” he said. “There will always be

folks with an axe to grind. That's the way of the world. The only way is to derail that is the facts. I think you've done a great job on this on biofuels and the GMO [biotechnology] area,” he told Vilsack. “We've got to be open. We can't hide from other perspectives. They care about food- related issues but they also want enough food.”

John R. Block, secretary during the first five years of the Reagan Administration, decried those who criticize modern commercial agriculture. “They don't even know what they're talking about. They don't rely on science; they just try to scare people,” he said, “If we rely on science, agriculture has a better future. But we have to guard against the hysteria that some people are putting out there to put a roadblock in the way of modern agriculture that uses new technology.”

Yeutter warned against complacency in trade policy. “We must continue to work on exports in a very vigorous way,” he said. “Those markets don't open automatically. It takes a lot of work. A lot of people would like to cut off those markets,” he said, citing European Union to discourage biotech crops and promote the so-called precautionary principle. “We have to have disciplines on those kinds of practices if we are going to open up markets,” Yeutter said. “Asia is where the action is; we need to focus on that region. We have a chance to do it in the Trans Pacific Partnership. TPP ought to be one of highest priorities of the U.S. government over the next couple of years.”

Mike Espy, secretary during the first term of the Clinton Administration, said that “farm programs really are going to have to change” because of budget pressure. He suggested combining several separate programs into one “total risk management package” and added, “The greatest challenge to agriculture is in Congress over budget negotiations.”

Johanns expressed “some degree of optimism that we can get a farm bill out of committee on to the floor” this year. “It's not the first rodeo” for most members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he said. Many have either chaired or been ranking minority member during a farm bill. “Hopefully, the House will be ready to work with what the Senate has done,” he said, but conditions in the House are less predictable.


Original story printed in February 29, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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