Recently, U.S. Department of Agriculture made a controversial move to relocate its Washington, DC offices of Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NFIA) to Kansas City. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Purdue, attributed the move to a cost cutting measure as well as a move that should bring USDA scientists closer to agriculture and research. Good idea?
Many disagree. Farmers and researchers alike have been critical of the move since the USDA works to inform Congress on legislation and appropriations. Additionally, many are worried since two-thirds of the 500 USDA employees are choosing to leave the USDA rather than relocate, causing a massive loss of talent. Many opponents of the move see this as a war on science.
All this comes at a time when farmers are living in uncertainty. Tariffs are causing lost markets abroad and lost income at home. Unusual weather patterns are leaving hundreds of thousands of acres of flooded farmland, much of which goes unplanted. Farm bankruptcies are rising.
During this critical time for US agriculture, ABILITY’s Shelly Rohe and Chet Cooper met up with Gale Buchanan, former USDA Chief Scientist during the G.W. Bush Administration, to gather his thoughts on science in the world of agriculture.
Cooper: Gale, give us your views on what’s happening today and why agriculture and trade are so important.
Buchanan: American agriculture is greatly dependent on our export markets. Anything that does anything to hamper trade of our commodities certainly puts a very serious—has a very serious impact on the farming community. So many things—not just grains, but a lot of the meat—are all important.
Cooper: With the trade wars that are happening right now with China, for example, how does that affect a farmer or just the industry itself?
Buchanan: Of course, the markets are greatly dependent upon how we move commodities internationally. So, the price of soybeans and the price of corn are affected by how the markets are doing. And of course, that trickles all the way back to the farmer who actually produces them. Anything that happens that affects the markets in any way, the ultimate people who have to bear the brunt are the people who are producing the commodities. That’s why it gets down to the local farmer very quickly.
Cooper: Knowing that there will be continued tariffs added at different times and not having stability, does that affect it somehow? Lack of stability in production or orders?
Buchanan: Part of the problem is the certainty, not knowing. Farmers do have some flexibility in the products they produce. Of course, they’re fixed in some ways. If a farmer has a cotton picker, they’ve got to plant cotton because they can’t pick corn with a cotton picker and they can’t go out and buy a corn picker. The problem is agricultural production is limited in the number of crops you can grow, but they have some flexibility. But when you have uncertainty, flexibility doesn’t make any difference because you don’t know what to do.
Cooper: So you’re a professor? Do you teach now?
Buchanan: I was a professor at one time. I’ve been an administrator for the last 30 years.
Cooper: And you were teaching—?
Buchanan: I was a weed scientist.
Cooper: Oh, and it’s legal in California now. (laughter)
Buchanan: No, not that kind of weed.
Cooper: Speaking about that, what do you think about what’s happening with the spread of pesticides moving into other crops and how that’s playing out?
Buchanan: Well, I wouldn’t want to comment on—I’ve been involved in herbicides as a useful tool for the past almost 50 years, and there’s probably no area of science that’s been more researched than the use of weed killers. And of course, we like to think that we do all the research that’s necessary to ensure the safety. For example, take another class of pesticides, insecticides. Research that showed that you didn’t need to use as many insecticides to control boll weevil has had a great impact on that problem. Where they used to have to spray boll weevil 10 or 15 times in a season, the boll weevil eradication problem developed research that reduced that need for insecticide for boll weevil control to two or three applications per season.
Cooper: We’re talking about cotton now?
Buchanan: In cotton. And there are other examples. Research in pesticides has been very definitive, and I would like to think that they’re safe. I don’t hesitate to go into the grocery store and buy any fruit or vegetable. I have confidence in our system. I certainly wouldn’t go in and buy something that I thought was going to kill me.
Cooper: The reports are coming out now that there was evidence that was not being taken up by both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture about this leakage into other farms, other property. I’m calling it “spillover,” but it’s airborne. I’m forgetting the name that they’re call it. And that it’s causing—I think it was Monsanto. Do you know the more current news of what’s happening with this?
Cooper: Yeah, Roundup. What’s your thought on that?
Buchanan: Well, I would not want to speculate. I’ve used Roundup when I was a researcher from the day it was a numbered compound. I’ve used it in many different experiments. I’ve worked with it. But the lawsuit that’s pending I would certainly not make any comment either way about something like that.
Cooper: It’s in litigation right now.
Buchanan: But I do have confidence in our system. I think our system is very sensitive to trying to do what is best and protect the American people. I don’t think anybody wants to do anything that would cause any harm to anyone.
Cooper: Speaking to the system, the system is part of an ecosystem which connects to the climate and such. What are your views on climate change and what could happen with farmers if climate change continues to move forward?
Buchanan: Climate change is certainly a hot topic now, but probably no one would be more impacted than agriculture. And for many years we’ve been involved in research that tries to address—because we’ve got to ensure productivity, regardless of the climate—We have to deal with the weather all the time anyway. Climate is just an extension of the local weather to long-term. So, obviously we’re concerned about climate change.
One can’t argue with things that are happening. You might want to argue about what’s causing it, but it’s hard to argue with polar ice melting, icebergs melting, things like that. You can’t argue with it. So, I don’t know what the big deal is. We need to continue doing research and continue looking at how climate affects our productivity of crops, but I don’t think you can argue with the fact that things are happening, that we don’t know exactly what is the cause of.
Rohe: I’m from Minnesota, and I see a lot of the local farmers not making quite as much, so they’re repairing equipment, not buying new equipment. Has there been any research on productivity due to faulty tractors and combines or not having new equipment they need?
Buchanan: Of course, anybody knows that when you have good prices for communities on the farm, that’s when you buy equipment. Farmers are notorious for “if they ain’t got the money, they don’t spend it”. They patch up the old tractors. Whether that impacts productivity, I honestly don’t know. I rather think that most farmers ensure that even though the old tractor is patched up, that it’s going to continue. But I don’t know that. It’s a good question, though.
Rohe: With the tariffs, people aren’t buying as much of the equipment that they might ever buy new, so they’re trying to repair what they can?
Buchanan: Yeah, absolutely.
Cooper: John Deere and companies like that are not happy that they’re just repairing and not buying new.
Buchanan: They’re tied totally, inextricably with agriculture. They might sell road grading equipment, but they’re not going to sell any farm tractors and cultivators and sprayers and that sort of thing when commodity prices are very low. I visited the John Deere plant in Molina, Illinois, earlier this year, where they make combines. A combine for a million dollars, that is a lot of money. You’ve got to have a decent price of wheat if you’re going to pay for it.
Cooper: Where would you invest, soybeans? It’s a joke.
Buchanan: I don’t think I’d buy any soybeans right now.
Cooper: If you were to tell somebody going into—let’s say it’s generational. You hear this happening often where the young generation of a farmer says, “I’m getting out of this. I’m going to sell out to a bigger place or I’m going to close up or sell the land to a developer.” What would you say to that generation that is thinking about that now?
Buchanan: One of the facts you can’t argue with is that farmers are getting older by the day. It’s so difficult to get into farming, unless you inherit land or marry someone who did inherit land. But for a young man getting out of college with a student loan to go down to the bank and say, “I want to borrow $5 million to buy some farmland,” people would laugh at you. It’s very hard to get into farming.
There’s a future—the one thing there’s no exception to [is] there’s not a single person on this planet who can survive without eating. So there is going to be a need for somebody to produce food. And it’s got to be such that we produce food for the entire world. I wrote the book Feeding the World: Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century. Agricultural research is clearly a fundamental basis that ensures our survival on this planet because research is what ensures the success of agriculture. I hope you go on Amazon and get my book and read it.
Cooper: What are your thoughts about these new companies that are producing plant-based meat type products, like the Impossible Burger?
Buchanan: More power to ‘em! I bought an Impossible Burger, and I wasn’t sold on it. It was a little thin piece of meat about that thick (gesturing ¼ inch width). Tough.
Cooper: Too bad! That’s a typical Burger King burger!
Buchanan: Burger King does a pretty good job with plenty of mayonnaise and mustard and lettuce and tomatoes, you’ve got a good sandwich without any meat. (laughter) I was not sold on it.
Cooper: So, you haven’t had a real one, then? Cooked at a restaurant? I’ve eaten in several different places, and if they’re not prepared by a good chef, a good cook —The first one I had was the best, and I go back to that one. It literally bled. It was just like meat, the texture, everything. And other ones I’ve had, there was one where I thought, “This is rubbery. This is not good at all.” They just didn’t know how to prepare it.
Buchanan: More power to ‘em. As long as it’s nourishing and edible, fine. We grow plants, too, in agriculture. You don’t pull that stuff they make those Impossible Burgers with out of air, do you? It’s from agriculture. What’s the big deal?
Cooper: Absolutely! I was just wondering about that connection where we try to produce less beef and more plant-based products that at least for a lot of our palates, we can think in our brains—is it working on steak right now?
They’re having some problems with gristle, making it feel the same as a steak. Do you find that agriculture, because of the wheat and everything that cows eat, is that connected to raising cattle in agriculture? Or is that something completely different.
Buchanan: Oh, yeah, that’s part of agriculture, of course.
Cooper: What do you think about the issues of all this beef that’s being produced and should we start reducing that to whatever degree we can?
Buchanan: Oh, I think whatever the market will determine if it’s acceptable.
Cooper: So you think it’s more market-based rather than trying to restrict it?
Buchanan: Sure! I eat salads every day for lunch. That’s the only thing I have for lunch. I love salads. My wife and I eat a lot of beans. But we also like meat. There’s room for all of these products. If it tastes good, it’s competitive, go for it. And being in agriculture, I don’t have any problem at all with baked beans.
Cooper: What about fake news?
Buchanan: I don’t like fake news. Like I told my wife after I got back from eating at Burger King, the way to test it would be to pull the meat out and put it on the plate. She likes to have her hamburger without the bun, without the lettuce, just the meat. I said, “That’d be a very poor meal.” Maybe if they’re cooked like you said, it would be good.
Cooper: You’ve got to try that. That would be a fair test for that.
Buchanan: I don’t have any problem with it.
Cooper: What was your title back in the day?
Buchanan: I worked for the Bush administration. That’s why I’m here, for the union.
Cooper: Which Bush?
Buchanan: Bush 43, George W. Recently. I ain’t that old! (laughter)
Cooper: Will he be there?
Buchanan: Yeah. We have a reception tomorrow night.
Cooper: Darn! Every time I come to DC, there’s always something where I say, “Oh, I missed that!”
Buchanan: Where are you guys from?
Cooper: I’m California, Shelly’s from Minnesota.
Buchanan: What do you do in Minnesota?
Rohe: I work with ABILITY Magazine.
Buchanan: How do you know farmers?
Rohe: I’ve got a lot of farmers in my family, a lot of dairy farmers.
Cooper: No dirt under your fingernails.
Rohe: A couple of crop farmers, but mostly dairy and beef. I had a big family dairy go under this year because the snowstorm hit. The snow was so heavy it crashed the roof of the barns. That particular storm killed a lot of cattle in the area. I don’t think they lost anything, but they had to sell.
Rohe: Some farmers have a hard time paying for repairs.
Buchanan: I went to school at Iowa State, and I had a good friend from Pipestone down in southwestern Minnesota.
Cooper: Did you know Senators Harkin and Grassley?
Cooper: They care about the farmers, too, that’s for sure.
Buchanan: I’ll tell you, the area you’re in is very important because agriculture needs to get its story out.
Rohe: I agree.
Buchanan: People don’t realize, this country’s been blessed. The problem we have is too much food. You go into a grocery store, and you’ve got a thousand different boxes of cereal, but that’s not the case all over the world.
Let me tell you something. We have got to ensure by some means—and I don’t know how to do it—but everybody’s gonna have to eat. If we think we’ve got a little problem with Mexicans and Central Americans coming across the border, you wait until the world is hungry. What are you going to do if there’s a huge ship that comes into New York harbor with 10,000 people on board? What are we going to do?
Cooper: And there’d be more than one if they’re hungry.
Buchanan: It’d be more than one. Everybody’s got to eat. I don’t think we realize that yet.