Ag rising in stature, past secretaries say

With more than three decades of collective service under their belts, six former U.S. agricultural secretaries discussed and cussed climate change, international trade, subsidies, crop insurance, food stamps and a bushel basket full of other ag issues Oct. 21.

As part of Kansas State University?s Landon Lec?ture series, participants included Kansan Dan Glick?man, John Block, Mike Espy, Mike Johanns, Ed Schafer and Ann Veneman.

Glickman, who served as ag secretary under Presi?dent Clinton from 1995-2001, said great things are happening in agriculture.

?Food and agriculture are hot topics today,? Glick?man told those who packed McCain Auditorium. ?They?re high up on the agenda, agriculture is part of the international agenda and people all over the world know about this industry.?

The farm economy has never been better, Glickman continued.

?After years, and years, and years of low prices and bad economic conditions, we?re in an era of a much stronger farm economy,? the former Kansas ag secretary noted. ?That?s not to say there won?t still be ups and downs, but the era of agriculture being the weak sister of American economics is over.?

The challenge for farmers will be to double food production by 2050 to help feed an estimated 9 billion people, Block said. Block served as ag secretary under President Reagan from 1981-1986.

?We can?t let the critics stop us from using new technology,? Block said. ?We have to use it or not meet our objectives.?

Mike Johanns, who served under President Bush from 2005-2008, stressed the importance of hammering out a farm bill, but said this wouldn?t be enough.

He said this country?s farm economy will grow and flourish with an enlightened approach to taxation, university research and world trade.

The lack of consensus on a new farm bill demonstrates the deep philosophical divide in Congress that threatens the future of farm legislation, Espy said. He served under Bill Clinton in the early ?90s.

The political middle no longer exists, Espy said. Urban Democrats are drawn to food programs and away from production agriculture, while rural Republicans push to cut federal programs to the bone.

?The attitude in the House and Senate has changed,? Espy continued. ?In the line of fire will be agriculture. We?ve got a real problem, guys.?

California?s Ann Vene?man was sworn in as the first woman secretary of USDA Jan. 20, 2001. Vene?man presided over one of the most historic times in American agriculture. Her tenure included record farm income, record agricultural exports and the creation of stronger pest and disease protection systems for the country.

During Veneman?s tenure, the Food Stamp Pro?gram and child nutrition program were reauthorized and funding increased. As secretary, Veneman focused on new approaches to help feed the hungry around the world.

Today she continues this challenge to feed the world as well as reduce obesity.

?In addition to the 842 million people that are always hungry, the World Health Organization estimates there are more than 1.4 billion in the world who are overweight,? Veneman said.

Veneman says this country faces the same challenges associated with obesity that causes all kinds of additional diseases including diabetes, heart disease, cancer as well as increasing the cost of health care and decreasing individual productivity.

?For far too long we?ve addressed the issues of hunger and malnutrition by throwing calories at it,? Veneman said. ?Our focus needs to look at getting nutrition to people today.?

Schafer, who served under President George W. Bush, said grains and meats exported throughout the world were accompanied by delivery of American values to countries desperate for stability.

?When you touch the land, you know about responsibility,? Schafer said. ?Hungry people make unstable governments. Hungry people don?t learn. Hungry people don?t work.?

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas.