The University of Nebraska-Lincoln got a quadruple opinion when it hosted former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture John Block, Dan Glickman, Mike Johanns and Clayton Yeutter Friday at the Lied Center. The secretaries kicked off the 2012-13 Heuermann Lecture Series with discussion on the Morrill Act, the 150th year old act that created public universities in the Midwest, and they weighed in on the agricultural outlook and support for the world’s growing population.
“We’ve done a wonderful job with moving forward with research and education,” said Block, who served with Ronald Reagan from 1981-85. “We’ve managed to feed the United States and countries around the world.”
That's not enough, though, Block said. He said the benefits of the Morrill Act’s legacy, which created land-grant universities in 1862, made education more affordable and emphasized disciplines in agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts and other then-practical professions.
“But we’ve got to continue to do this,” Block said. “You don’t do it unless you continue to focus on research and looking ahead. I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to research today.”
Despite the drought and climate change, the former secretaries observed that Nebraskans are still in a prosperous period. Farm income has never been higher. About a third of the state’s production is shipped to other nations and 30 percent of Nebraska’s GDP comes from agriculture.
Locally, 25 percent of Nebraskans are involved in agriculture, considerably more than the national average of 15-18 percent.
However, one resource faces scarcity that is essential to growing crops: water.
“Water is the oil of the next century,” Glickman said, who served as secretary from 1995-2001.
Block pointed out that genetic engineering has created crops requiring less water, and Nebraskan Johanns, the Secretary of Ag from 2005-07, said the state must take advantage of being on top of the Ogallala Reservoir.
Other hot topics among the panelists included livestock, organic food, women, farm bills and ethanol.
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t have a guest worker program,” said Yeutter, who grew up in Eustis and served as agriculture secretary from 1989-91.
Block said immigrants, whether legal or not, were necessary to take the jobs Americans didn’t want to pick berries or milk cows. Johanns said while most Americans have no problem with legal immigration, reform must be created to allow all to pursue prosperity freely.
Promise exists in the youth, though, the officials said. With agricultural technology at its height, years of affluence can continue with the right work ethic and motivation.
“Don’t necessarily worry so much on whether you’re going to make multiple millions of dollars,” Johanns said. “Do it because you love it and because it’s your passion, and I promise the rest of it will take care of itself.”
By Dan Moser, IANR News
The discussion's title, "The Land-Grant Mission of 2012: Transforming Agriculture for the 2050 World," is a nod to the land-grant system's challenges today: Helping to feed a world whose population is expected to increase from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050.
Nebraska native Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and co-moderator of Friday's lecture, said some estimates are that agricultural outputs actually will need to increase by 70-100 percent to meet that 2050 population's needs because as people in the developing world become wealthier, they will seek out more protein-rich diets.
"If you're going to feed the world … you're going to need science and you're going to need technology and you're going to need the best of land-grant universities," said Johanns, now a U.S. senator from Nebraska.
"We've got to do everything better than we do it today," Yeutter said.
Yeutter turned to Ronnie Green, Harlan vice chancellor of UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the other moderator of the lecture, to call on UNL and other land-grant universities to be "bold" in their research, extension and teaching.
The panelists cited several goals for land-grant universities in the next few decades:
• Increase public-private partnerships, especially given federal budget limits that mean fewer government dollars for research.
• Help farmers continue to adjust to climate change and its impact on production.
• Continue to pursue biofuels options, notable cellulosic ethanol, that do not pit fuel vs. food as crop uses.
• Help farmers in the developing world increase their productivity and efficiency.
Johanns said American farmers are justifiably proud of their role in feeding the world, but meeting the needs of 2050 and beyond will require producers in Africa and elsewhere to get more efficient. American scientists, many of them in land-grant universities, can play a key role in training them to do so.
"Nothing will buy more good will for the United States of America," Johanns added.
"They want our help. They want to feed themselves," Glickman agreed.
Although farmers now comprise fewer than 2 percent of Americans -- compared to 60 percent when the Morrill Act was passed -- the ag sector actually is positioned to have greater political, social and economic influence than ever because of concerns about the expanding population's food needs, panelists agreed.
In fact, Glickman said, if the movie "The Graduate" were made today, the one-word career advice to Benjamin Braddock would be "agriculture."
"Over the long term agriculture and food is poised to be a very dominant industry in America," Glickman said.
This year's punishing drought has increased the interest of people who normally don't think about agriculture, Block said.
"They don't know about farming, they don't care about farming, but they do care about having enough food," he said.
The four former agriculture secretaries, all but one of whom -- Glickman -- served Republican presidents, generally agreed on the issues and challenges, but for a good-natured exchange between Block and Glickman over organic agriculture, which the former dismissed as largely insignificant, while Glickman noted that consumers nowadays do want food that's been treated with fewer chemicals.
"That doesn't mean they want to be vegetarian hippies from the 1960s," he joked.
Johanns and Glickman agreed that today’s consumers do want more information about the food they eat, and they expect choices in the marketplace they didn’t expect in years past.
This lecture will be archived later at heuermannlectures.unl.edu, as well as broadcast later on NET2 World, RFD-TV and RURAL TV.
The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Heuermann Lectures are made possible through a gift from B. Keith and Norma Heuermann of Phillips, long-time university supporters with a strong commitment to Nebraska's production agriculture, natural resources, rural areas and people.