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Former secretaries offer perspectives on agriculture's future

2012_0223_ASgSecs
Seven former secretaries of Agriculture joined Secretary Tom Vilsack on a panel at the Agriculture Outlook Forum 2012 today. Front row, from left: Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb, Vilsack, Ann M. Veneman and Ed Schafer. Back row: Clayton Yeutter, Dan Glickman, Mike Espy and John Block. (USDA/Bob Nichols)


By KIM de BOURBON

Seven former secretaries of Agriculture offered their perspectives on USDA today as the agency celebrated its 150th anniversary at the annual Agriculture Outlook Forum.

After the showing of a 30-minute film which featured the group, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan asked them as members of the “secretaries club” to offer their observations on the future of agriculture. All living former secretaries were invited to appear on the panel.

John Block, who served 1981-86, took a strong stand against what he called “the critics of modern commercial agriculture.”

“They don’t rely on science, they’re just trying to scare people,” he said, referring to critics of genetic engineering.

Clayton Yeutter, 1989-91, said the USDA needs to work with exports in a “very vigorous way.”

“We can’t sell everything here,” Yeutter said. “Asia is where the action is. It should be our highest priority.”

Mike Espy, 1993-94, noted that Americans are concerned with the use of tax dollars, and that farm programs must assure them by being highly productive and efficient. He called on the department to “reorganize the bureaucracy.”

Dan Glickman, 1995-2001, talked about the importance of promoting bipartisanship by making people understand the people-oriented nature of the department, and that because the USDA is in touch with citizens in a personal way, that people don’t have the hostility toward it that they have for others parts of government.

He also noted that the research budget is “not enough.”

“Subsidies dominate the conversation, but it’s not the only issue,” Glickman said, noting that the need for a larger research budget needs more promotion.

Ann Veneman, 2001-05, cited the growing world population and its impact on the global water supply. She also noted that when it comes to budget discussions, discretionary spending is always targeted, although she called discretionary funding “what protects American agriculture.”

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., was Agriculture secretary from 2005-08, and now serves as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In response to a question from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Johanns said that the depth of experience on the Senate committee means the Senate will lead the farm bill process this year.

“I’m optimistic that we can get it out of committee to the floor,” Johanns said. As for the House, he said “I hope they will be ready to work with what the Senate has done.”

Ed Schafer, 2008-09, offered the need to reach out to children looking at social media, who may not be getting the full story. Citing youth reaction to “Food, Inc.,” a film examining the American food industry, Schafer said the USDA should make an effort to use social media to get “science-based facts” on food safety out to the public.