A Dialogue with 6 Ag Secretaries

By Mark Edelman and Barry Flinchbaugh

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



ME.  Professor, I don't ever recall seeing six former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture together on a land grant university stage. It was historic to see former Secretaries Block, Espy, Glickman, Veneman, Johanns, and Schafer on a panel moderated by you as a Landon Lecture to celebrate the 150th birthday of Kansas State University on October 21. This bi-partisan group was insightful and entertaining. There was a plateful of food for thought about agricultural issues, global food challenges, and the state of our democracy.

BF.  Not only did the two Democrats and four Republicans complement each other with good natured jabs, the collective message was powerful.  For a few hours, students and audience members heard first-hand accounts of historic events and forward-thinking strategies from several Administrations.  No one could have missed the importance of capable leaders in the role of Secretary and the important role that government plays in assuring the safest, cheapest, and most abundant food supply in the world. With projections for 9.5 billion people in 2050, government's role has never been more important in sustaining open world markets for agricultural trade, research, innovation, and prudent resource use.

Lets Talk Food

 

ME.  The Secretaries drew upon their own agricultural and food perspectives from Mississippi to North Dakota and from California to New York.  Unforeseen events have always impacted the agriculture and food system.  Shocks can be global, long term, and catastrophic. Secretary Ann Veneman told of the BSE outbreak on December 23, 2003 and its aftermath. Global markets for U.S. beef dried up overnight.  She said in this case, most-but not all-nations treated the U.S. as we would have treated them by closing and then reopening their markets for U.S. beef as soon as the safety could be verified. However, the U.S. was still working with a few nations to fully reopen markets a decade later. Trade policy requires trust and patience in working toward mutual interests for both trading partners.

BF. At one point in the Clinton Administration, Japan was the only nation not to agree on reduced trade barriers for GATT trade negotiations. Secretary Mike Espy told the audience that Japanese trade negotiations didn't seem to be progressing because of their focus on domestic food security.   After a set of particularly intense negotiations and presentations by Secretary Espy, the Minister informed Espy that Japan would allow U.S. rice into Japanese markets.  The Secretary asked which of his arguments changed their minds?  The Minister responded, “None--Japanese housewives are taking us to school and telling us U.S. rice is better and cheaper.”

ME.  Secretary John Block shared a story about President Reagan's decision to remove the the grain embargo in the early 1980s.  Ironically, the embargo was imposed by the previous Administration against the former Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan. In one of his first cabinet meetings, Block reminded the President of his campaign promise to remove the embargo.  Block's comments drew quick responses of opposition from Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Caspar Weinberger, Defense Secretary. Both had strong personalities and prior experience in the Ford Administration. Rather than debate the issue in the Cabinet, Block worked with Ed Meese, the President's Policy Advisor and Chief of Staff James Baker to secure a policy decision from President Reagan. They organized back to back announcements to the Cabinet and media to lift the embargo--with no time allowed for a rebuttal.

BF. Looking forward, Secretary Block said it would be impossible to feed the world without biotechnology. Biotechnology allows American farmers to reduce chemical use and to adopt reduced tillage practices. Europe uses 50% more chemicals than we do.  Secretary Glickman pointed out that people feel strongly about their food and that he was probably the most assaulted Agriculture Secretary--with protestors throwing pies and crowds stripping to protest GMOs in Europe.  The consensus was there is no silver bullet for solving the global food challenges.  Over half of the global food aid comes from the U.S. But in places like Africa, China and other nation's are also making new investments in the future productive capacity in hopes of developing alternative sources of food supply for the future. Secretary Ed Schafer added that hungry people make for unstable governments.  Peace reduces government instability.  Food is a key ingredient for peace.

ME. Secretary Veneman spent many years following her stint as Secretary, heading up UNICEF global food initiatives.  She pointed out that we no longer count calories since obesity became a major issue that reduces productivity and increases health costs-we look at nutrition. Secretary Espy then suggested the concept of taking snack foods and pop off of the eligible menu when public funds subsidize the purchase for School Lunch, SNAP and WIC programs. In addition, perhaps bonus points could be given for selecting fruits and vegetables. Secretary Dan Glickman pointed out that the politics of surpluses often influence the items on the school lunch menu.

BF. In response to a question on whether to keep a safety net under farm income, Secretary Glickman responded, “Yes, but it needs to be a safety net that helps farmers manage their risks and one that provides support when a true natural disaster occurs."  The days of direct payments are gone.  There is little support for government programs that dictate to farmers what to plant.  Farmers will pay part and government will pay part of the safety net.

ME. The most poignant dialogue came after an agronomy professor asked about prospects for increasing agricultural research funding in light of all of the global food challenges.  Senator Mike Johanns, said the question provided a teachable moment.  Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Defense, and Interest on National Debt make up 80% of the federal budget.  If you take those issues off the table, it is impossible to solve the nation's deficit and debt problems.  Our current sequestration policy targets most of the cuts to the remaining discretionary portion of the budget. That part of the budget will continue to bear the brunt of the cuts until we change the policy. Changing the status quo will require some leadership.

BF. The call for leadership was bi-partisan. Democracy requires an element of compromise to work. It was suggested that an opportunity was missed when no action was taken on the Simpson-Bowles Debt Reduction Commission report. Johanns, who recently announced retirement from the Senate, said he cannot support anyone who asks for your votes to solve the nation's problems and then votes to shut down the government. We should never be willing to place the full faith and credit of the United States Government at risk. Glickman said at the end of the day, we must fight wisely and judiciously out of the belief that we as a people have the ability to govern ourselves. The rest of the world is watching.

*  Edelman is a professor of economics at Iowa State University and Flinchbaugh is an emeritus professor of agricultural economics at Kansas  State University.


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