Celebrating the past accomplishments of the country's land grant institutions in a campus visit Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said farming-and food-related research at Penn State is vital to the country's future.
Vilsack, a Democrat, served as the governor of Iowa before being tapped by President Barack Obama to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He toured the university's food science building and the Creamery on Wednesday, then delivered an address commemorating the 150th anniversary of the USDA and the land grant program to an auditorium packed with students and faculty from Penn State's agricultural education programs.
"Increased investments in education and research ... allows us to make and produce and create goods and services that the rest of the world will want," Vilsack said.
The USDA has $30 million invested in 65 active projects at Penn State. While Vilsack said investment in agriculture-related research makes sense, with every
$1 invested creating a $20 return, institutions such as Penn State need to do a better job of selling themselves to critics and those who want to make across-the-board cuts in government spending.
"We do a pretty poor job of marketing these great things that you're doing," Vilsack said. "(But) we're continuing to work really hard to convince Congress that this is a dollar well spent."
During his speech, Vilsack highlighted some of the important research he learned is being conducted at Penn State, such as a study of prebiotics that may help prevent diseases from infecting livestock more naturally than antibiotics, and a study of bacteria that can turn cellulose from plants into fuel.
Such research can change the world, Vilsack said, and help put more Pennsylvanians to work.
"This bio-based economy is beginning to take hold, and it falls right into this vision of a country that makes, creates and innovates," he said.
Entering the political realm, following his talk, Vilsack urged Congress to renew the five-year food and farm bill, set to expire this year, calling it an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.
"The president is focused on building an economy that's built to last, and at the core of it is agriculture," Vilsack said, adding, "It's important that Congress get it right, and that it provides adequate resources because there is a significant return on investment to research."
Vilsack said he understands Gov. Tom Corbett's predicament as he faces a tight budget this year, but said investment in agricultural research is vital to America's interests.
"It's about job security. It's about energy security, national security," he said. "It's about reducing health care costs. It's about protecting our value system (and) adapting to a changing climate to ensure we continue to produce enough food to feed a hungry world."
Corbett's decision to maintain the funding level for Penn State's research and extension programs was welcomed by Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. McPheron, who led Vilsack's campus tour, said neither Corbett nor Vilsack have ignored the point that Penn State's agriculture programs continue to create jobs.
"(Vilsack) talked a lot about students and filling the pipeline for jobs," McPheron said. "Our students walk out the door with more than 90 percent of them having jobs in their fields. In food science, there's more than a decade's history of nearly 100 percent placement."
Those kind of numbers, Vilsack said, represent a "value-added proposition."
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