Schafer: U.S. agriculture force for peace

In what may be his last public speech before leaving office Jan. 20, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said one of the lessons he learned during his year in office is how interconnected the world is — and how agriculture can be a force for peace.

Speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 90th annual meeting in San Antonio, Schafer said that although America has long played the lead role in providing emergency food aid to the world’s hungry, it’s now time to take another step. The greatest challenge, Schafer said, is to feed the 70 million additional people who join the world’s population every year.

“We must help (other countries) put their agriculture on a more stable footing,” he said, adding that he “has no doubt” that improving agriculture across the globe “can bring peace to this world.”

During a news conference held just before his speech, Schafer discussed some of the issues USDA is coping with in the closing days of the Bush administration, including the controversy over the soybean checkoff program, the implementation of country-of-origin labeling, and biofuels.

USDA has asked the Office of the Inspector General to investigate allegations of mismanagement of checkoff funds, personnel issues within the National Soybean Checkoff Program and mismanagement in the USDA’s role in monitoring the checkoff program. The allegations are serious, Schafer said, and need a serious outside investigation, but he added that the situation “challenges us as to whether this is an effort to eliminate the soybean checkoff.”

Regarding country-of-origin labeling, Schafer said that despite some remaining issues, he believes that on the whole, the COOL program represents a good balance. He added that COOL is a marketing program, not a trade issue, and he is confident that it complies with World Trade Organization rules.

As for biofuels, Schafer noted when food prices increased dramatically last spring and summer, accompanied by high commodity prices, many people were quick to blame ethanol. Those high commodity prices are gone now, but food prices haven’t gone down proportionately.

“This points to a clear fact that ag commodity prices were not the driving factor in food costs,” Schafer said.

Meanwhile energy prices and prices for inputs such as fertilizer have gone down, though not at the same rate as commodity prices. That is finally beginning to balance a little bit, Schafer said, adding that he believes that by planning season, the price for inputs will have balanced out with the commodity prices.

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