163rd Landon Lecture hosts six former Secretaries of Agriculture

Mike Espy, who served as United States Secretary of Agriculture from 1993-1994, describes the political realities surrounding agriculture in the U.S. during the 163rd Landon Lecture on Public Affairs in McCain Auditorium Monday night. The prestigious lecture series regularly brings influential speakers to campus to speak on national and international issues, including former U.S. presidents, secretaries and ambassadors in the past.

Six former Secretaries of Agriculture delivered the 163rd Landon Lecture last night in McCain Auditorium. Each former secretary answered questions from moderator Barry Flinchbaugh that hit upon a variety of topics, ranging from the use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamps Program, to biotechnology in farming.

The six former secretaries included John Block, Mike Espy, Dan Glickman, Sen. Mike Johanns, Ed Schafer and Ann Veneman. Glickman, a Kansan, along with Espy and Schafer, are Democrats while Block, Johanns and Veneman are Republicans.

One of the biggest topics of discussion was food stamps. Veneman, who served as secretary from 2001-05 under George W. Bush, expressed concerns on the number of American citizens in the program in her opening statement.

“[The food stamp program] has gone from about 20 million people on it in 2008 to 47 million people today,” Veneman said.

Espy, who served as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture from 1993-94, said he believes that people on food stamps should not be allowed to buy fatty foods or snacks on the taxpayer’s dime.

“I think it’s reasonable to experiment as to whether or not we can move some of those snack foods from the SNAP program,” Espy said. “Those foods that are high in calories, high in salt and fat, some of the high fructose corn syrup drinks, perhaps when it comes to use of the public tax dollar at the supermarket, to be spent on things that we know do not perpetuate the best health outcomes, those products, just like tobacco, just like beer, we would give some consideration to making these foods ineligible from use in the SNAP program.”

Block, who was part of the Ronald Reagan administration as secretary from 1981-86, expanded on that idea and said that kids in public schools should eat lunches based off their weight.

“I agree with [Espy],” Block said. “I think the federal government contributes towards obesity … I’ve got another solution … We’ve got kids that are obese and they’re going to school and they get free lunches, and they have big lunches for them … The way you deal with that is you weigh them in, if the kids are too heavy they go in the vegetable line. And if they’re not too heavy and they’re just right, they can go get biscuits and gravy.”

Glickman, the only Kansan on the panel, who served as Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture from 1995-2001, agreed with Espy.

“The obesity problem is really serious and what [Espy] says is true, and we probably should start looking at these issues,” Glickman said.

Another issue was the use of biotechnology in agricultural practices. When Flinchbaugh asked if it was possible to feed the world without using biotechnology, Block emphatically responded, “no.”

“We don’t use the chemicals they use in Europe because we have biotechnology,” Block said. “They use 40 percent to 50 percent more chemicals than we do. There’s no way, unless we invent something else that’s better, and right now we don’t have anything else that’s better.”

Johanns, who also served under Bush from 2005-08 and is currently a senator for Nebraska, said that what may be true about the use of biotechnology in America may not hold true elsewhere in the world.

“Kansas style agriculture, or Nebraska style or Illnois style, does not necessarily work in every part in the world. It’s just a different phenomena,” Johanns said.

Johanns went on to say that during a trip to Africa, he discovered that hybrid seeds could make a significant impact.

“You could change the world over there with hybrid seed and fertilizer,” Johanns said. “You can change the world with just better planting processes. One of the things they found out over there is that when they grow crop over there, they spread it. And it’d grow up like weed or something. They came to learn that if they took their crop and put it in rows, their yield doubled.”

Glickman also added that while he agrees with the use of biotechnology, it may not be the best answer in some cases.

“We just can’t take this issue and just overlay it on everything and say that it’s the only answer or, in many cases the primary one,” Glickman said.

Land-grant universities, such as K-State, could play a huge role in the development of biotechnological advances, according to Johanns.

“I’m a believer in biotechnology,” Johanns said. “We have to really get good at the science, and that’s where K-State comes in and the University of Nebraska and other land-grant universities come in, we’ve got to be the best.”

Overall, the overarching message from the panel was that the agricultural industry is thriving, and that it is universities, like K-State, that keep it going.

“K-State has such great tradition when it comes to agriculture,” Johanns said. “You could look at that group of young people today and what’s happening has been happening for decades, and that’s the very best and the brightest are coming here to get their education and then they’re going off into the [agriculture] sector.”