An area of opportunity
WORTHINGTON -- Dr. Molly Jahn returned to her Midwestern roots Friday to tout research and education taking place in southwest Minnesota that will help lead agriculture and bioscience through the 21st century.
The USDA's Acting Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, Jahn's talk at the sixth annual Regional Bioscience Conference highlighted why the investment in biotechnology and rural youths will matter not just for Worthington or Minnesota, but for the entire nation.
"(Agriculture) is an area of tremendous opportunity, a frontier for innovation and a place where entrepreneurs, day in and day out ... are making excellent livelihoods," she said.
The value of agriculture production in the U.S. is nearly $330 billion according to the latest statistics. And, with $115.4 billion earned in the export market alone, agriculture is one of only two sectors in the U.S. with a positive trade balance, said Jahn. The other is jet aircrafts.
With a lot of money tied to agriculture, it makes sense that a lot of jobs are, too. Roughly 2.8 million people in the U.S. work in production agriculture, while another 3.5 million have jobs in an ag-related industry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is tasked with monitoring and supplementing the industry. As Jahn explained, 70 percent of the USDA budget is spent on nutrition assistance, with another 17 percent on farm and commodity programs. An estimated 7 percent goes to conservation and forestry, with the remaining 6 percent funding all other ag-related sectors, including rural development.
"USDA is involved in many different ways across the agricultural sector," said Jahn.
In her presentation Friday, she said the USDA has outlined five problem areas in the agriculture sector -- food security, food safety, nutrition and health, bioenergy and climate change.
In food security, Jahn spoke of the ability for people to purchase food -- a problem most common in large cities and rural areas. She said there were 17 million families who were food insecure at some point in 2008.
Food safety in a globalized, industrialized food supply is considered critically important, she added.
"We need to prioritize prevention -- to avoid the problems in the first place," Jahn said, adding that surveillance and enforcement are equally as important. The USDA already has an inspector in every plant in the U.S.
Tying into both food security and food safety, numerous scientists are working on health-related research in the food industry. Among the top priorities are ensuring access to healthy, affordable food, increasing physical activity in schools and communities, providing healthier food in schools and empowering parents with information and tools to make good choices for their families.
Jahn said the new USDA program, "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," is hoped to improve consumer understanding of where their food comes from. This is in response to wave after wave of eating fads have circulated through the United States.
"An educated consumer is one that can better discern among the various kinds of communication that are being made," said Jahn. "We have a whole series of why food moves around this country. That becomes important when we talk about food sustainability, food security and insecurity."
In bioenergy, Jahn spoke of the importance of being at the forefront of technology. As such, the USDA has invested in alternative crops for decades, including switchgrass and energy cane.
"One size will not fit all -- we are going to need to have different feedstuffs around the country," she added.
Jahn said tremendous gains have been made in agriculture as a direct result of research, including improved crop yields, a more efficient use of resources, higher quality products and more diverse types of products.
"We're reducing inputs and reducing soil erosion with new technology," she said. "This is the direct consequence of research. We need to continue those types of investments."
Finally, climate change has been outlined as a priority focus, with research to look at adaptation of plants and animals, carbon sequestration and increased sustainability.
In closing, Jahn said the USDA is focused on investing in the agricultural enterprise, committed to health and passionate about rural America.
"USDA understands through the loan programs, through the various ways we intersect with schools, that vibrant rural communities are going to be a critical part in creating an economic strength," she added.
Activity during the second and final day of the Regional Bioscience Conference -- hosted by Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. -- began with morning tours at JBS and Prairie Holdings Group of Worthington and Minnesota Soybean Processors in Brewster. Conference attendees then returned to the college and had the opportunity to check out Worthington Middle School Science Club project displays.
Jahn's remarks were followed by a breakout session, "Utilizing Education to Build a Stronger Rural Economy," prior to the conference's conclusion.