Matt Lohr: Saluting our safe, affordable and ample food supply

Of all the American success stories throughout our nation’s great history, few narratives match the significance and impact of our agricultural industry. As I have mentioned before in this column, we began as a nation of farmers, and their contributions not only built, but continue to sustain us. Today, the impact of the agricultural industry is felt in every state and every household.

May 15, 2012, marks the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At the time of its creation, President Abraham Lincoln directed the new Federal agency to acquire information through “practical and scientific experiments” as well as collect and propagate to the nation‘s agriculturists “new and valuable seeds and plants.”  This was the first in a series of acts of Congress which helped to modernize and advance American agriculture, as well as provide a critical foundation for our overall economy.

One of our in-house historians tells me that Lincoln referred to the USDA fondly as “the people’s department.” With its emphasis on agricultural trade and production, food safety, protecting natural resources, fostering rural communities and ending hunger in the United States and abroad, it was indeed a government department that served every person in every community. You’ll forgive me for saying that I see VDACS in exactly that same light, a department that serves every person in Virginia. That’s why we’re the Department of Agriculture AND Consumer Services.

Anyone who has heard me speak knows that I am extremely proud of the fact that agriculture is Virginia’s number one industry. It contributes $55 billion to the state’s economy each year, and along with our sister agency forestry, contributes $79 annually. But I digress, so let’s get back to the national picture of agriculture in America and the USDA. (You didn’t really expect to leave Virginia out of this discussion, did you?)

By the 1880s, various advocacy groups were lobbying for Cabinet representation for the USDA. Business interests sought a Department of Commerce and Industry, but farmers tried to raise the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet rank. In 1887, the House of Representatives and Senate passed bills giving Cabinet status to the Department of Agriculture and Labor, but the bill was killed in conference committee after farm interests objected to the addition of labor. Finally, on February 9, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law elevating the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet level. If I’m still Commissioner in 27 years, perhaps I’ll write about that anniversary in 2039.

Including the food and forestry sectors, one out of every 12 Americans is employed in an agriculture-related industry. American consumers enjoy a safe and abundant food supply, spending, on average, less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food. That 10 percent represents the lowest percentage in the history of the world. By comparison, most European consumers spend more than double that, and, in developing countries, the percentage is often higher than 50 percent.

This success has been produced by the honest hard work of our nation’s agriculture producers. And this efficiency would not be possible without the science and biotechnology that have advanced the agricultural industry. We must continue this scientific effort. We must continue to develop better seeds that produce larger yields. We must develop crops that use less water. We must maintain agriculture’s economic success and our competitive advantage.

It is critical that we do so. Success in the agricultural sector lifts all aspects of the U.S. economy and provides an important foundation for our present and future economy. So, while I honor the USDA’s proud history with this column, I also want to remind readers that we must also affirm our nation’s commitment to the future of agriculture.

That future must include the smart use of science and biotechnology to keep our agriculture industry competitive and on the technological forefront of the world. Today, the United States is the world leader in the development and use of agricultural biotechnology, contributing to our positive balance of agricultural trade. Thousands of jobs depend on us maintaining this advantage. Thousands of American families depend on us remaining the world’s leader.

It is with great pride and respect that I honor our nation’s agriculture industry today on this significant anniversary. Our producers remain a critical source of jobs and innovation. I also salute agriculture’s commitment to science and hope the industry continues to use biotechnology to feed the nation and the world.

If they do so, I know that someone like me will be able to write similar comments 50, 100 or 150 years from now and praise the agriculture industry on USDA’s 200th, 250th or 300th anniversary.

Matthew J. Lohr is the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.


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