Food has been in the news a lot lately. Prices are up, commodity markets are churning, and people are looking at the “geopolitics of food” and wondering what role food prices have played in the current unrest in the Mideast and North Africa.
Two weeks ago, Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post called it the Great Food Crunch. “Global food demand is colliding with strained supply,” he wrote. “High prices or shortages could destabilize poor countries and trigger global scrambles for scarce foodstuffs.”
At the same, time, Reuter’s published an article, “As land runs out, U.S. corn yield must quicken,” in which it warned about what’s at stake with current production: “This year, however, even with farmers planting nearly every acre of arable land, it will not be enough to tame prices and replenish stocks. The price of almost every major crop is at or near record highs; competition — between farmers and between crops — has never been more intense.”
Today, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was in St. Louis to dedicate a new agricultural research service facility, and spoke to the St. Louis Agribusiness Club at the best-attended luncheon in the club’s history. The Washington Post and Reuter’s stories provided a stark background for what Secretary Vilsack had to say.
“Of the 2.1 million farmers in America,” he said, “about 200,000 of them –mostly family-owned – produce 85 percent of what we consume.” Every $1 billion in exports means 8400 jobs. In St. Louis, he pointed, 20 percent of people working depend upon agriculture for their livelihoods.
Agriculture is a global industry. What is imported into Korea from the U.S. matters and matters greatly to the U.S. economy. China is now the single largest U.S. customer, thanks primarily to soybeans, Vilsack said. And for 50 years, the United States has had a trade surplus in agriculture.
Vilsack’s prescription: A government that spends less and spends wisely. An economy that grows through innovation and education, “and does it better than the rest of the world.” An economy that produces agricultural surpluses that can be exported.