On Wednesday, U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack toured Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences research facilities. It was part of his commemorative tour celebrating the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Morrill Act of 1862, which created the land-grant university system.
There, Vilsack promised: "We'll be a government that spends less money, but one that must increase investment in education and research. Why? Because that's the vehicle through which this country gets back into the business that it's always been great at: innovating and creating."
Vilsack cited statistics showing that every $1 invested in ag research brings a $20 return. "As a result, since 1980, agriculture has been the second most productive aspect of our economy," he added. "The research done over the last 30 years is nothing short of remarkable. It's happening here, and it's a result of partnerships between Penn State and government entities like USDA."
"You're doing research here that will allow us to better understand (pathogens)," he said, referring to his tour of labs and pilot plants in Penn State's Food Science Building. "You're doing research that'll ensure that the HACCP [Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points] plans we put together in processing facilities are what they need to be to stay ahead of the pathogens."
Food scientists also have a role to play in improving nutrition and addressing obesity and related health care issues, such as diabetes. But the challenge, Vilsack explained, is to make healthy choices more palatable for consumers.
"How are you going to reformulate the food so you can reduce the sodium, sugar and fat, and still make it the choice?" he said. "You're doing research here at Penn State that's going to allow us to understand all the complexities of food choices, from how our brains work to genetics to the taste of food."
The United States is a food-secure nation. But he warned that it's not to be taken for granted. Some 85% of food consumed in the United States is grown here. What's imported is merely for convenience.
This country's capability to feed itself is directly related to the science that has led to this productivity. "We'll have to increase agricultural production by 70% globally in the next 40 years just to meet the needs of the rising human population," he projected. "That's going to require research and technology transfer in countries and locations that may not have the sophisticated universities like the one we're at today.
"So when you go back to those labs, back to the farm, back to your office, back to school, understand what's at stake here," he emphasized. "It's not just a research project. It's not just getting money for the university. It's not just the whiz-bang science and the excitement of discovery.
"It's about saving lives, creating jobs, improving incomes, feeding hungry people, making a nation secure, making the world a better place, preserving the planet and preserving a value system. That's why research is important."