Monday, February 2, 2009

Agriculture: Important to America, Arizona and CALS?

I apologize for the poor formatting after I copied it here, but below is the official OTLE response:

This letter is in response to your slide that was shown in the last lecture of AREC 478 that so boldly and inaccurately claimed, "Agriculture is not important in the US and has been of declining importance since 1776." Not only do I find that statement inaccurate, I find it offensive. America produces the world's safest, most affordable, most abundant food supply. In the remainder of this document, please find evidence intended to help you appreciate an industry that feeds, clothes, and provides shelter for you.

I am a proud product of many generations of agriculturalists. As an Agriculture Economics major, I plan on spending my life working as an advocate and active participant in the agriculture industry. I live on an operating farm in Southeastern Arizona where pumpkins, alfalfa, chili peppers, corn, sheep and cattle are just a few of the products we have produced. I am also one of more than two million people who live on farms across America and work to produce the food that you consume daily.

Fundamental Importance of Agriculture
Food, water, clothing, and shelter are at the basis of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid. As with any pyramid, if you take away the base, the rest of the pyramid won't stand. To say that agriculture is not important in America is naïve simply because you cannot put a dollar value on the ability to meet the very basic and fundamental needs of humanity. You and I know that we will eat tomorrow. We will have clothes to wear tomorrow. We will have homes to keep us safe and warm. People in developing countries do not have those same assurances, and thus, as shown by Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, they are unable to reach their potential. And not just them as individuals, but entire economies are unable to reach their potential due to a lack of the very things you claim are "unimportant"!

Agriculture's Role in National Security
I noticed on the syllabus that we will be extensively exploring our nation's current energy supply and future potential alternatives. Many view America's dependence on foreign energy sources a matter of national security. Can you imagine how different our world would be if we had to depend on foreign sources for our food as well? History has shown that empires have risen and fallen, wars have been won and lost, and nation states have been built and destroyed, all because of the country's ability, or lack thereof, to feed its citizens. It is commonly noted that one reason the South was defeated in the Civil War was because they had planned to sell their cotton crops to England and Europe to pay for food and ammunition. The North put ships off the ports to stop boats coming to southern ports to pick up cotton and therefore, the South could not sell their product to purchase supplies to meet the basic needs of its citizens and it resulted in weakening their army. A further example of this point was the strategic, key advantage that the United States had over its enemies in World War II that led us to victory. Our troops were well fed and operating on good nutrition, theirs weren't.

Agriculture Economic Contributions
You said that you based your position on the dollar value of economic contribution of the industry in America relative to the entire economy. The purpose of this document is to prove that dollar value alone is not an efficient measure, however below are a few statistics as to the staggering economic contribution of agriculture:
$9.2 billion in Economic Contribution from Arizona Agriculture in 2004
$6 billion in Economic Contribution from Arizona Agriculture in 2000 (note the growth)
$3.5 Trillion Total Output from American Agriculture in 2002
20% of America's GDP is from agriculture
Approximately 20% (21 million) of the jobs in America are in related Agriculture
1 farmer provides (on average) food and/or fiber for one year for 143 people vs. 1940 when 1 farmer fed 19 people
Agriculture products are the primary products that America exports
Americans spend 10% of disposable income on food
Mexicans spend 33% of disposable income on food
Citizens of India spend 51% of disposable income on food

In addition, your statement "USDA's budget is mostly comprised of subsidies to large farmers" is also wrong. Of the $88.8 billion budget in 2007, below is the breakdown of monies allocation:
58% ($51.4 billion) in Food and Nutrition Programs (Including the Food Stamp Program and Women, Infant, and Children Program)
14% ($12.4 billion) in Farm Programs (Including, but not limited to subsidies)
6% ($5.1 billion) in Conservation Programs
Please note that farm subsidies represent only 14% of the total subsidies paid out by the federal government. It is true that agriculture only represents 3.4% of total federal spending but less than one half of one percent of total federal spending goes to Farm Programs. Most economists and individuals would see this as a sign of how independently this industry operates. Clearly in comparing .5% of federal spending versus the 20% of GDP output from agriculture contribution, the benefits outweigh the minimal costs. Please also note that among industrialized nations, America has by far the least amount of subsidies; for example, in the European Union, agricultural subsidies account for more than 40% of total spending.

To capture the value of support industries for agriculture is a challenge because they are so numerous: irrigation, fertilizer, food processing, equipment, real estate, automobile, transportation, retail and the list continues; many of these support industries, including the less obvious ones, are impacted directly by the health of the agriculture industry. In addition, in these challenging economic times as various industries are shrinking, potential employees are turning to the agriculture industry for jobs due to the stable and "always in demand" nature of the industry.

America's Role in Global Agriculture
American agriculture not only feeds Americans, but approximately 16% of all agricultural products produced in the US are exported around the globe. With less than 7% of the world's land, the United States provided:
39% of the world's corn
38% of the world's soybeans
22% of the world's beef
20.9% of the world's cotton
20% of the world's milk
9.3% of the world's wheat

In addition, American agriculture is the world's hub for food science and technology. Companies like Cargill (160,000 employees operating in 66 countries) and Monsanto (20,000 employees operating in 61 countries) are working worldwide to bring food, seed, and more efficient technologies to people across the world. Just because you don't appreciate the stability in the food supply provided by American agriculture, don't doubt for a minute that people in Japan who use our grain because their country does not have enough land mass to grow their own grain, appreciate it. Or farmers in Sri Lanka, who because of better seed (from America) made available to them, are able to produce more food per acre and in turn ease hunger a bit in their country. Globally, 8 million farmers in 18 countries grow biotech crops on more than 167 million acres. Those acres are feeding more people than ever before, with science that, in large part, comes from the United States.

The precipitous rise of the commodity markets in 2008 (not just the grain markets, but looking at them in particular) was due to a dangerously short level of carryout crops from the 2007 growing season. The "Wall Street Speculators" and ethanol production take the blame from most people for that drastic rise and then the fall of commodity prices; however, if one is honest with no biases or looking for scapegoats, it was a true supply and demand situation with some emotion thrown in, which we know is what drives markets. The world was afraid of running out of both corn and wheat, and also sorghum, which are the major human feedstuffs in most of the world. Most of the globe doesn't worry about how to feed live cattle in a feed yard situation because they are most concerned with feeding the people who are still alive in their family- and keeping them alive!

The whole run on commodity prices did not start with corn (negating the ethanol argument); it started with wheat because, as a grain more affordable than corn, it is the primary grain product in diets around the world. Due to global adverse growing conditions and low prices, the world was perilously close to not having enough wheat supply to meet the world's demand. After wheat prices rose, corn followed, crude followed and everything went crazy for a period of about 8 months to a year. (For more information about this topic in particular, please refer to the link below for the National Corn Growers Association to see more in depth research.)

History of the Morrill Act
It is also interesting that you claim that agriculture has been decreasing in importance since 1776. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln realized that in order to continue thriving and to support a growing population that the American agriculture industry needed to grow. To make that happen he signed the Morrill Act to create land-grant colleges in every state with the primary purpose of conducting agricultural research and to provide training for those in the industry. The University of Arizona is the Land Grant Institution in Arizona and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was the first college. As a part of this Land Grant Institution, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and in particularly, a member in the Agriculture and Resource Economics Department, it is a shame that you do not find agriculture important. As for the rest of the students and professors within the College, agriculture and the life sciences are fundamental to the learning and careers of all of us.

Words from the Wise
According to former President John F. Kennedy:
"Our farmers deserve praise, not condemnation; and their efficiency should be cause for gratitude, not something for which they are penalized".

While serving as the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush said:
"Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to our farmers and ranchers for helping to ensure stability in our economy, for providing food products that amply meet all our citizens' needs, and for representing what is best about America. They show the character and values that have made this country strong; values of love and family, faith in God, and respect for nature."

In conclusion, on behalf of 20% of the American workforce who are employed in the food, fiber and natural resource industries, as well as the two million producers across this country, I hope that you will be more careful with the position you hold as a professor shaping young minds. If there is anything this world does not need, it is one more person who does not understand nor appreciate the value of a safe, affordable, and abundant food supply spouting inaccurate statements. Just ask someone who is hungry right now—they will tell you.



National Corn Growers Association:
American Farm Bureau Federation:
Arizona Farm Bureau Federation:
United States Department of Agriculture:


JL said...

Great Job Janette! You hit the nail right square on the head. It is a shame that a professor in CALS would even think to take that position, and even more so, that he has not been scrutinized by the college for that position.

Candice said...

Sorry to hear about your meeting with him today. I can't believe that he didn't understand what you were trying to tell him. Sometimes I wonder how great our high education system really is. Isn't it nice when you find a few great professors who stand for their faith and have common sense?! You did the right thing.