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Former U.S. ag secretaries talk policy

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 Lecture series, participants included Kansan Dan Glickman, John Block, Mike Espy, Mike Johanns, Ed Schafer and Ann Veneman.

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

"Food and agriculture are hot topics today," Glickman 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 threating 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 Veneman was sworn in as the first woman Secretary of USDA on Jan. 20, 2001, Secretary Veneman 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 Program 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," the former ag secretary 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, a Hoxie native, is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansan who writes for the Kansas Farm Bureau.