U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said advancements in agriculture technology have made America food secure, and that technology will help produce the estimated 70 percent increase in food production the world will need in coming decades.
Vilsack spoke Tuesday at Kansas State University, delivering the 160th Landon Lecture in a series named after former Kansas Governor Alf Landon, who was the 1936 Republican presidential nominee.
Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, emphasized the importance of agriculture and why expanding agriculture education is imperative to the future of our nation, a message that was well-received by those in attendance who gave Vilsack standing ovations at the beginning and the end of his speech.
Vilsack began by referring to an article published in February on Yahoo! titled “College Majors That Are Useless” by Yahoo! News staff writer Terence Loose. The article cited five majors that are “degrees to avoid” when going back to college. Those majors, in order; agriculture, fashion design, theater, animal science, and horticulture. Vilsack explained that, in fact, there is no such thing as a useless degree in the field of agriculture, and he based his speech on the guideline, “Seven reasons why degrees in ag are not useless but imperative.”
The first reason Vilsack gave was that “people with degrees in agriculture have made our country food secure,” meaning if we were to go to war and the ports were closed down tomorrow the U.S. is self sufficient enough to feed ourselves. “Don’t take that for granted,” he said. Vilsack added that 85 percent of the food we consume is produced in the U.S. and that because of our nation’s food security we are less likely to have conflict amongst ourselves. “A country that’s well-fed is a country that’s at peace with itself,” Vilsack said. The Secretary also noted that agriculture is responsible for about 10 percent of U.S. exports, and that every billion in agriculture sales generates 8,400 jobs at home.
The second reason he listed as importance of ag degrees is the capacity of the U.S. to help feed the world and keep it safe. By investing in research, Vilsack says, American agriculture has the capacity and the ability to reach out to other developing countries and help provide them with food and the opportunity to gain knowledge in order to produce their own food. “By providing a transfer of knowledge to other countries we are not going to compete with them, we will work with them.” Vilsack also believes by investing in agriculture education and research we will be able to expand the middle class. Vilsack proposes that to help with the nation’s unemployment rate we look to agriculture which employs one out of every 12 Americans.
Vilsack continued his list by adding sustainable energy options. Vilsack’s belief in biofuel energy was evidenced earlier this week by approving a $5 million payment to Western Plains Energy, LLC, to support the construction of a biogas anaerobic digester in Oakley, Kan. Livestock waste can help America become energy secure and create job opportunities for many bio and plant based energy operations. “American agriculture has helped the US move away from petroleum based plastics,” Vilsack said. “We have unlimited potential in this country.” Vilsack believes by using more biofuels our country has reduced the cost of gasoline at the pump anywhere from $0.80-$1.30 a gallon.
A student in attendance at Vilsack’s Landon Lecture was Sierra Warren, sophomore in elementary education. “I agreed with the Secretary on many of his points,” Warren said, “but my favorite was when he discussed the importance of agriculture education.”
After the lecture, Vilsack met with reporters and voiced his support for the construction of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense (NBAF) facility in Manhattan near Kansas State University. He said the proposed $650 million research facility was important to ensure the U.S. would continue to have a safe and adequate food supply.
“I understand the importance and significance of getting that done,” Vilsack said. He believes the facility is a national priority that will help identify threats to the multi-billion agriculture industry.
U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan) accompanied Vilsack on his visit to Kansas State and also fielded questions from reporters about NBAF. Roberts, who has championed the construction of NBAF in Kansas, says Vilsack “stands squarely behind this project and has said where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Lisa Henderson is a sophomore in Agricultural Economics and Ag Communications at Kansas State University.