By Dan Glickman and Randy Russell
This piecie originally appeared on Agri-Pulse.
The U.S. agriculture and food industry is the envy of the world and has achieved a level of success that is unparalleled. Yet, as we saw in the recent Presidential election, a vast divide exists between rural and urban America. Notwithstanding the very strong farm economy, rural America and farm country overwhelmingly supported Mitt Romney by over 20 points, and yet urban America supported President Obama by nearly 25 points. Although deeply divided politically, both urban and rural America are strongly linked in large part due to our safe, affordable, nutritious and abundant food supply. U.S. agriculture has never been more relevant to the economic success of all Americans and for the world than it is today.
Food and agriculture faces even greater opportunity for growth over the next several decades, and will need young, educated, skilled leaders to ensure that growth is realized. In his recent keynote address to the Farm Journal Forum, Secretary Vilsack posed this important question: “How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don’t have a proactive message?” Good question. But young Americans seem to have already grasped the enormous potential of this great industry. Food and agriculture departments at colleges and universities around the country are enjoying remarkable job placement rates, and young Americans are enrolling in record numbers. From 2009-2011, the nation’s land grant universities saw enrollment in agriculture and related programs increase by 20% among female undergraduates, and 9% among male undergraduates. Women now outnumber men in undergraduate land grant agriculture programs. Moreover, degrees in agriculture and food sciences are becoming increasingly diverse: engineering, science and technology, finance, communications, nutrition and other fields that offer critical skills and a much needed expertise to power the American agriculture economy. These are similar skills required by the economy as a whole.
As rural America braces for a surge in global demand for food and agricultural products, there is an enormous opportunity to share this story with all Americans. Every American, urban and rural, directly benefits from the vast productive capabilities of U.S. agriculture. Americans spend about 10% of their disposable income on food, the lowest of any industrialized power in the world. Imagine if we spent 30% of our income on food, which is the amount the average Russian spends. More than $1 trillion dollars, out of our total economy of $15 trillion, would be relegated to food expenditures. American consumers, urban and rural, are provided with the safest and most affordable food supply in the world. But there are even broader economic reasons underpinning the importance of our food and agricultural industry. While U.S. agriculture at the farm gate represents less than 2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), when combined with transportation, processing and marketing that makes up the food system it rises to over 10% of the GDP. The industry employs 20 million workers and contributed over $137 billion in gross exports and $40 billion to our net trade balance in 2011. Last year American consumers alone spent $550 billion for food products originating on U.S. farms and ranches. The US agriculture and food industry is only slightly smaller than the manufacturing industry (11.5% vs 10% of GDP) and nearly eight times larger than the computer/electronic products industry.
In the context of these demographic changes, the world will continue to face the uncertainties of volatile climate and weather conditions, as well as political pressures of increased trade barriers, fluctuations in global economic and political realities, and changes in the value of our dollar. And this is not to mention the uncertainties and unpredictable nature of federal farm legislation. Nonetheless, the core fundamentals in the global demand for food offer a positive trend line for the food and agriculture industries over the next 40 years. To foster this growth, the U.S. agricultural sector will need the right mix of economic, trade, regulatory, conservation and farm policies to ensure that this potential becomes reality. We also need to embrace more publicly funded and better targeted research to help us meet the challenges through innovation, especially given our natural resource constraints and environmental challenges. And very significantly we will have to listen carefully to the demands of consumers in their desire for safe and nutritious food; the world of the future will be more consumer demand driven than ever before, and we ignore the demands and concerns of the consumer at our peril.
This is an amazing time to be involved in U.S. agriculture. If agriculture were a stock on the New York Stock Exchange, we would recommend a “strong buy” due to the fundamentals discussed above. In the 1960’s movie “The Graduate”, Dustin Hoffman was given career advice to go into “plastics”. Today we would give the unqualified advice to young people, urban and rural, to go into “food and agriculture”. That is where the future lies.
About the authors: Randy Russell is former Chief of Staff at USDA and President of the Russell Group. Dan Glickman is former Secretary of Agriculture.