Secretaries see feeding billions more as big challenge

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2012 - Seven former secretaries of agriculture can think of more than seven different challenges facing agriculture. But their joint appearance at USDA's Outlook Forum today found them united in the belief that increasing production to meet the needs of billions more people in the coming years will be its greatest test.

“Everybody needs to eat. We produce the food. We're in great shape. I have no reason to think we won't take advantage,” said John R. Block, a Republican who was at USDA from 1981 to 1986, opening the discussion moderated by current Secretary Tom Vilsack.

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But whether the United States will invest in research and encourage the adoption of new technology necessary could limit potential gains. “The biggest challenge is the research budget,” said Dan Glickman, a Democrat who was secretary from 1995 to 2001. “When you look at the challenges of food safety, of feeding hungry world, coping pests, [you ask] do we have the capability of another green revolution” Do we have the resources? Are the taxpayers willing to fund these things as they did in the 1960s?”

Ann M. Veneman, the Republican secretary in 2001-05, characterized growing world population as “both opportunity and challenge.” She asked, “”Do we have the technology to feed a growing population?” Maintaining an adequate “discretionary” program budget at USDA - which finances food safety and research - was critical, she said. “Those are the programs that protect American agriculture.”

“We've got a tremendous challenge to make the case that food security is about national security,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who headed the department in 2005-08. “Too many people without enough food creates a chaotic situation.” His comment was echoed by Ed Schaefer, the Republican who followed him in 2008-09. “Hungry people make for unstable situations. We need to do anything we can so people don't go hungry.” But agriculture needs to “produce more without more land and without more water.”
Former Secretary Clayton Yeutter reminded the group that increasing trade to sell more U.S. farm goods overseas, especially with Asian nations, will be key if farmers hope to preserve this year's record profit and exports.Johanns cited budgetary challenges. He observed that people are questioning the role and purpose of government “at a time when nation's debt is just unbelievable. What a sad legacy we are leaving for our kids, this much debt.” Democrat Mike Espy, the secretary in 1993 and 1994, saw budget negotiations in Congress as an immediate challenge. “American taxpayers are concerned about effective uses of their tax dollars. Farm programs are really going to have to change,” he said.

Their ability to agree despite partisan differences illustrated a comment by Glickman about USDA. “This is by far the most bipartisan agency in the government,” he said. In large part because its operations are widespread and local, “you don't get this bitterness toward government the way you might in other departments.”


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