Former agriculture secretaries deliver joint lecture
By Larry Dreiling
It was a night of reminiscences as well as talk of things present and future during a special Landon Lecture Oct. 21 at Kansas State University.
Designed as a part of the 150th anniversary observance of K-State's founding as Kansas' land-grant university, McCain Auditorium was nearly packed to hear six former U.S. secretaries of agriculture discuss their own personal histories while in office and beyond as well as offer their perspectives on current food and agriculture issues.
The six former secretaries included John Block, who served under Ronald Reagan; Mike Espy and Dan Glickman, who served under Bill Clinton, as well as Ann Veneman, Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., and Ed Schafer, who served under George W. Bush.
A beaming Barry Flinchbaugh, Ph.D., K-State professor emeritus of agricultural economics, led the six past secretaries through a conversation on a wide range of topics, from the need for a farm bill, to biotechnology, to nutrition programs that serve people in the U.S. and around the world.
"What a treat. This is as good as it gets," Flinchbaugh said in a post-lecture news conference. Flinchbaugh, who hasadvised every one of the secretaries on multiple farm bills, added: "This is a great way to celebrate K-State's anniversary and a feather in the cap to a long career. I'll sleep good tonight."
Each of the secretaries gave a short talk prior to Flinchbaugh's questions. Each talked a little about their views of their place in history but spent most of their time talking about the future.
Since Glickman is a native Kansan, Flinchbaugh let him take cuts in line to speak first.
"We go way back. First time I met him I had to explain the difference between a bull and a steer," Flinchbaugh said.
"And is he a quick study."
With that, Glickman summed up the thoughts of most of those on the panel.
"Being secretary of agriculture was the greatest job I ever had," Glickman said. "Nowhere else on earth can you impact the lives of so many people; farmers, consumers, business people, not only here, but around the world."
As the discussion began, there was some talk of the ongoing farm bill debate and how insurance would and should be the primary risk management tool for farmers and ranchers. Also, all said improvement in the tone of governance in Washington was needed. For example, there was some controversy on the issue of conservation compliance.
"If you are going to have a heavily subsidized crop insurance program, then the question is should farmers who take advantage of the program be required to use conservation compliance," Glickman said. "If that's the program of the future, I think if you participate in crop insurance you should be required to do conservationcompliance."
Schafer believed compliance should be voluntary.
"If we're to get compliance delivery, government isn't the solution," Schafer said. "It ought to be voluntary so that producers can get value from those conservation efforts is what's going to make it happen."
But it was the future of global food security that became the lead topic. It really began with Veneman, who discussed her work after leaving the secretary's position in 2005 to become executive director at the United Nations Children's Fund, an office she served in until 2010.
"The population of the world will increase to 9 billion people by 2050," Veneman said. "We currently have 842 million people around the world who suffer from chronic food insecurity. Of particular concern are young people.
"We also have 1.4 billion people who are overweight, which increases our health care burden around the world."
About 500 million people are considered obese by the World Health Organization.
Veneman also expressed concerns about the number of American citizens in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.
"SNAP has gone from about 28 million people on it in 2008 to 47 million people today," Veneman said.
"These are burdens we have to face around the world."
This led to Espy later saying that SNAP recipients should not be allowed to buy fatty foods or snacks.
"Those foods that are high in calories, high in salt and fat, some of the high fructose corn syrup drinks, perhaps when it comes to use of the public tax dollar at the supermarket, to be spent on things that we know do not perpetuate the best health outcomes, those products, just like tobacco, just like beer, we would give some consideration to making these foods ineligible from use in the SNAP program," Espy said.
Block then added that schools receiving food assistance dollars should proportion school lunches based on the proper weight of each student.
"We've got kids that are obese and they're going to school and they get free lunches, and they have big lunches for them," Block said. "The way you deal with that is you weigh them in, if the kids are too heavy they go in the vegetable line. And if they're not too heavy and they're just right, they can go get biscuits and gravy."
Flinchbaugh then got into the issue of the use of biotechnology.
When asked if it waspossible to feed the world without using biotechnology, Block, as the most senior member of the "secretaries' club" present, started that discussion with an emphatic "no."
"We don't use the chemicals they use in Europe because we have biotechnology," Block said. "They use 40 percent to 50 percent more chemicals than we do. There's no way, unless we invent something else that's better, and right now we don't have anything else that's better."
What may be true about the use of biotechnology in America, Johanns added, may not hold true elsewhere in the world. "Kansas style agriculture, or Nebraska style or Illinois style, does not necessarily work in every part in the world. It's just a different phenomena," Johanns said.
Discussing a trip he made to study agriculture in Africa, Johanns said: "You could change the world over there with hybrid seed and fertilizer. You can change the world with just better planting processes.
"One of the things they found out over there is that when they grow crop over there, they spread it. And it'd grow up like weed or something. They came to learn that if they took their crop and put it in rows, their yield doubled."
Johanns, in a bit ofbuttering up to the land-grant audience, added: "I'm a believer in biotechnology. We have to really get good at the science, and that's where K-State comes in and the University of Nebraska and other land-grant universities come in-we've got to be the best."
The panel of past secretaries took questions from the audience. One of the questioners was Chuck Rice, Ph.D., university distinguished professor of soil microbiology.
Rice, who was a member of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, asked about why, considering all the concerns expressed about increased food production, government spending for agricultural research has remained essentially flat over the last few years.
"I have graduate students who do not want to go into agricultural research because grant funding isn't there compared with other sciences," Rice said.
Johanns then went into a lengthy discussion about federal spending cuts that are to occur in mid-January. Johanns told the crowd about how ag research spending is in the discretionary part of the federal budget versus mandatory portions that include spending for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, national defense, and interest on the national debt.
"The way we are going to come to grips with that is on spending on those five items," Johanns said. "If we don't, then there isn't a very bright future there.
Overall, the overarching message from the panel was that the agricultural industry is thriving, and that it is universities, like K-State, that keep it going.
"We are spending faster than our economic engine can provide the reckoning to pay for it." Added Espy, "(Johanns) is absolutely telling the truth. We know we have a problem with entitlement spending, but we don't have the political will to deal with it."
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at email@example.com.