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One podium – seven former secretaries of agriculture

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“Modern, commercial agriculture is what is feeding the world now. Unfortunately, we have a generation that is further removed from the farm, and they don’t understand," said former Agriculture Secretary John Block.

Former Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter, noted, “We need to focus on exports, particularly to Asia. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Negotiations ought to the highest priority for the United States over the next couple of years.”

Seven former secretaries of agriculture seated at one podium. It was a rare and historic gathering of brain power at USDA’s 2012 Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va., which also marked the 150th birthday of USDA.

When current agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack asked the group to expound on what each considered agriculture’s biggest modern-day challenge, as up to date and enthusiastic as these old pros were, you’d have thought they’d just left office yesterday.

John Block, who served from 1981 to 1986 said, “Modern, commercial agriculture is what is feeding the world now. Unfortunately, we have a generation that is further removed from the farm, and they don’t understand. They’re willing to be brainwashed, as a lot of people in Europe are already. I think this is a risk. When the Food and Drug Administration says something is safe, it’s safe.”

Clayton Yeutter, who served from 1989 to 1991 noted, “We need to focus on exports, particularly to Asia. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Negotiations ought to the highest priority for the United States over the next couple of years.”

Mike Espy, secretary from 1993 to 1994 said, “farm programs are going to have to change, and they’re going to have to be made less expensive. But we still have to protect farmers from cataclysmic drops in farm revenue.”

Dan Glickman asked if there was anybody around with a coconut cream pie, referring to a confection of that flavor hurled at him by an animal rights protester  in 2000.

Glickman, who served from 1995 to 2001, says USDA, the government and private sector “must work together to promote an agricultural research budget to insure that agriculture can address challenges of food security, globalization, climate change, pests and nutritional challenges.”

“We have to protect the discretionary funding side of USDA’s budget. It’s your APHIS programs, food safety and research budgets. We have to protect those programs that protect American agriculture,” said Ann Veneman, secretary from 2001 to 2005.

“People are asking fundamental questions about the role of a federal government versus state and individual rights,” said Mike Johanns, secretary from 2005 to 2008 and now a U.S. senator from Nebraska. “I think we have a tremendous challenge to make the case that food security is about national security. And that’s why we need to continue to invest in what we do.”

Ed Schafer, who served from 2008 to 2009, said “the challenge is how to increase food production without adding more land and with less water. We need to ship not only our products, but our expertise, technology and experiences to others so we can increase world food production and provide that security around the world.”

Former Secretary Bob Bergland was to have made it eight former secretaries, but he was taken from the conference to a hospital for a medical emergency. Our thoughts and prayers are with him.

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