Daschle: Farming, food security and the future

Farm Forum

Thomas A. Daschle was the distinguished speaker at the Ag Outlook Forum in Washington, D.C. Here is the speech taken from the United States Department of Agriculture website.

In South Dakota we have a special term to describe agricultural issues. We just call them “issues.” I was very fortunate to spend 30 years on these issues in Congress, attempting to put rural America’s agenda on the national agenda. And almost every day since I left the Senate, I am reminded that agricultural issues and food security issues don’t stop at the Prairie’s edge. These are national issues. They are global issues.

Today farming and food security are beginning to receive the attention they deserve. President Obama has launched a new alliance for food security and nutrition with the goal of raising 50 million Sub-Saharan Africans out of poverty over the next decade alone. City kids are going back to work their grandparents’ ranches. Farmers are having their own on-line dating service. And the most talked about Super Bowl commercial – courtesy of the late Paul Harvey – was Dodge Rams’ heartwarming tribute to the American farmer.

What’s that Kenny Chesney song, “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy?” You know, there’s some truth to that. Agricultural issues are, I would argue, sexy – if not sexy, increasingly critical and increasingly important.

So I’m glad to be here, and it’s metaphorically appropriate that we’re here today because it turns out it was February 21 of 1865, 148 years ago today, that the U.S. Patent Office issued Patent Number 46,454. I won’t give you a pop quiz. It was simply labeled “John Deere Plow.” But the implement sketched out on the page could just as easily have been labeled, as some historians have named it, one of the most important inventions in American history. They called it “the plow that broke the plains,” and it did. By replacing cast iron with smooth steel, John Deere’s innovation opened up huge new swaths of land for cultivation; it made it possible for towns like Aberdeen, South Dakota, my home town, to exist.

Before it, tilling an acre took a grown man a full 24 hours. After, it took as little as 5. And every pile of soil overturned upended another assumption about what the land could produce. That, to my mind, has been the story, not just of agricultural success, but of national success and, indeed, of global progress. This kind of game-changing innovation has enabled us to leap ahead, to break the plains, increase harvests, and feed the whole world.

Sometimes these innovations come from the most advanced science. Other times, they are simple steps and ideas that come from looking at and listening closely to the problem. But all of them can break down barriers to food security and allow us to plow entirely new paths of progress. And today, more than ever, we need those new pathways forward.

Just take a look at a few recent headlines:

“Drought on Mississippi River impacts everything from Japanese livestock to American beer.”

“Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warns scientists.”

“Patent endings raise new biotech issues.”

“Global crop production shows some signs of stagnating.”

“Could climate change be Al Qaida’s best friend in Africa?”

I could list dozens more.

It all adds up to a perfect storm of challenges for global food production, and as a result, challenges for our global economy and for global security.

When I think about the factors that make up the perfect storm, I’m reminded of what Mark Twain reportedly observed: “Buy land – they’re not making it anymore.” In fact, I wish Twain was right. The truth is, global warming is making less. So we need to do more with the land that we still have.

Every year 7 billion of us on this earth already use the equivalent of a planet and a half of resources. Yet nearly 870 million people worldwide still today go to bed hungry. And by the year 2050 there will be over 2 billion more mouths to feed, many of them in the developing world. That’s not sustainable.

To keep up with this rapidly rising demand, we will need to increase global food production 70 percent by mid-century. As Assistant Secretary of State Jose Fernandez has said, “That means producing as much food in the next 50 years as we’ve produced in the last 10,000.”

Think about that for a minute. Between now and the time my grandkids are old enough to attend USDA conferences on their own, we will have had to grow as much food as we’ve grown from the dawn of recorded history to today. And we’ll