Corn wins wars

Why America’s agricultural might helps uphold its status as a world power.
By: Alex Freeman

Yesterday, I wrote about the regulation of commodity futures, swaps, and derivative markets. That probably seemed abstract, especially to those of you reading from somewhere in the Midwest. Midwesterners, like myself, usually have more immediate concerns than learning Wall Street jargon.

Like agriculture. Iowans are concerned about agriculture. Not subprime mortgage backed securities. Soy beans. Corn. Hogs. These industries are our lifeblood—and not because we’re a bunch of simpletons. Iowa feeds the world, and we’re damn proud of how well we do it.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a chief contributor to the sustained success of farms in Iowa and across the country. Thus, it’s fitting that Iowa’s outsized agricultural influence has won the state substantial clout within the USDA. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack is the current Secretary of Agriculture, and has several Iowa natives serving beneath him.

As a political appointee, Vilsack will soon be replaced by a Trump Administration nominee, as will the rest of the non-permanent USDA employees appointed by President Obama.

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Drake graduate and Dep. Undersecretary Lanon Baccam meets with Drake students in the Secretary of Agriculture’s office. Photo: Fellow Drake student

In his tenure at the USDA, Vilsack has worked on legislation aimed at giving American farmers—particularly those in Iowa— more opportunities to thrive in domestic and global markets. He has overseen the negotiation and implementation of always-controversial Farm Bill legislation, and helped the agricultural industry maintain a record-level trade surplus as Secretary.

A trade surplus occurs when a country exports more of an industry’s product than it takes in via imported goods. Trade surpluses indicate a country’s strength in producing a type of good, and if other countries become especially dependent on one supplier for a good (e.g., China imports $20 billion in US soybeans each year) then the supplier has noteworthy leverage in other political and diplomatic settings.

Drake University graduate and Deputy Undersecretary at the USDA Lanon Baccam agrees that food is more than nutrition. It can also mean power and influence on the world stage. “We spend around ten to fifteen percent of our national income on food,” he said in our meeting today, “meanwhile, other countries spend twenty to twenty-five percent.” This, Baccam posited, gives us substantial advantages in other industries vital to national security, for we’re able to invest more of our limited resources into those sectors instead of overspending on food. In short, efficient farming is good for national security.

Allison Thomas, an expert working in a branch of the USDA called the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), explained that this security advantage is heightened when the US can make the most out of its trade relationships with other countries. Thomas spends many of her days working with the US Trade Representative to craft agricultural trade policy that works for American farmers. She and the rest of the FAS work on knocking down trade barriers that hurt American farmers and limit growth potential, while occasionally seeking to erect some trade barriers in the interest of our agricultural interests.

The USDA, like every bureaucracy and department subjected to the agenda of the president, will inevitably encounter shifts in policy focus and agenda with the incoming Trump Administration. But it’s likely many constants will endure—like American farmers continuing to work with the USDA to ensure food gets produced for people around the world.

You can learn more about the USDA and their myriad of services at USDA.gov. To learn more about the international reach of the USDA, visit FAS.USDA.gov

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