At the start of the school year, millions of American students are opening textbooks, iPads and laptops to begin learning subjects that will impact their lives for years to come. Increasingly, our schools, both public and private, are increasingly focused on STEM curriculum – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Our children need a foundation in the basics of our natural world if they hope to be successful later in life.
And, for good reason. These fields are where the future of the American economy lives. Plus, in rural America the need is even more pronounced. Today’s farmers are tech pioneers – leveraging genetics to find the best seeds, using the field of medicine to protect the safety of our food supply, and using advanced meteorological tools to understand the weather and impacts on crop yields.
I am not a scientist, but my primary degree from Iowa State University is in Animal Science. In addition to this degree, I have a degree in Agricultural Education and have completed classes in plant science, soil science, meat science – and have spent decades in Iowa’s farm fields understanding agriculture from the roots up. A basic foundation in the sciences if critical to modern agriculture – and now Donald Trump has nominated a non-scientist to lead scientific and research efforts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Many people question the ability of politicians in Washington to understand the very real problems that they face. I also question the ability of a political scientist to understand the basic science of agriculture, and the impact his decisions may have on rural Iowa, and America as a whole. I am sure his MBA will be quite helpful in our search for new antibiotics to conquer the rapidly emerging super bacteria which could seriously damage public health. Will his PhD in Public Administration research stem the decline in pollinators without which, 30% of the foods we consume in the US would not be available?
Even though the position of chief scientist for the USDA is a political appointment, it has never in the past been a ‘political job’. The qualified individuals who have served in past administrations came from agricultural research institutions and came to the position with the highest qualifications to serve. They understood that the main focus of the position title is science! They knew that future food, fiber, and bio-fuel production depended on the cutting edge research that USDA is known for.
During my time at Iowa State, and since then in my almost 40 years in production agriculture, I have used the research results from the USDA Agricultural research Service (ARS) to implement improved production techniques. As a farmer, I rely on their good data. As a producer of anti-biotic free meat, I rely on the alternatives to antibiotics that ARS recommends, and have even found methods of production which are more efficient at bacterial control than commercial antibiotics. We are a secure nation in part because we are a food secure nation, we can feed ourselves. We must realize how important USDA research is in maintaining our food security, and we need the best people to lead that research, not political hacks.
John Whitaker is former head of the Farm Services Agency office in Iowa and a former state legislator in the Iowa House of Representatives. John is a farmer and policy expert on rural development and agricultural issues and a founding member of Rural Forward – a non-partisan 501c4 organization focused on advocating for rural America.