The 2012 presidential election did not go the way most Florida farmers would have preferred. The future of the Farm Bill is cloudy and workable immigration reform seems years away. Foreign competition is increasing and the Sunshine State faces challenges ranging from diseases like the citrus-destroying HLB to the ongoing tangle of water-quality restrictions imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But Adam Putnam, commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, is optimistic about the future of Florida produce.
“We have an active, progressive group that are leaders for the country, and I’m continually reminded of that when I meet with our colleagues around the country,” Commissioner Putnam said. “The challenges that Florida has and a couple of our brothers and sisters like California, the rest of the country looks to us and says ‘We need to pay attention to what’s going on there because that’s going to be going on in our backyard in two years or five years.’
“Florida agriculture continues to be strong — 300 commodities around the state. Some are having the worst year ever, others are continuing to do very well and are benefiting from the fact that trade flows and demand are continuing to grow. Just to put this in the big picture perspective, in the long run there’s nobody in a better position from a standpoint of job security than people who are in the food business,” Commissioner Putnam said. “From the time Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden until the turn of the 19th century, that’s how long it took for there to be a billion people on Earth. Since that time we’ve gone from 1 billion to 7 billion. In the last 100 years we have been adding a billion every 12-15 years. We’ll be at 9 billion by 2050. How do you feed a planet of 9 billion people without extraordinary improvements in yield and productivity that have to be driven by science? At the root of everything we do, we have to continue to embrace science and have policy makers embrace science in order to feed a growing world. We have to have another green revolution to get there. Having policies that allow our country and state to reach our potential is going to be important to global stability because 9 billion hungry people is a recipe for global catastrophe.”
In particular, Commissioner Putnam would like to see more-favorable conditions in trade agreements with foreign produce providers.
“We are an industry that has found ourselves historically in a defensive crouch either because the agreements are poorly drafted and disadvantage U.S. producers or Florida producers or individual commodities and we’ve been through those fights in Washington and we’ve won some and lost some,” Commissioner Putnam said. “But we also have opportunities to play offense and box above our weight class and be aggressive when we have opportunities to open up new markets for what we produce in Florida and the U.S. And once we get those deals, we have to enforce and implement them in fair way. Certainly what we’re seeing right now with the Mexican imports and the refusal of the U.S. government to acknowledge or recognize our domestic industry’s right to pursue their version of the facts and their losses in the appropriate venue is mind-boggling. They need to get off the dime and allow our domestic industry to have their day in court. For whatever reason they are continuing to deny us that opportunity and it’s wrong and it’s unacceptable and we ought to be screaming from the mountaintops.”
While trade is a key factor to Florida’s continued agricultural growth and success, it pays to look closely at what is happening at home as well. In its last session, the Florida Legislature overwhelming approved — with a single dissenting vote — Commissioner Putnam’s plan to put Florida produce on school lunchroom trays every day.
The $1 billion program began in August, “and the things we thought we could accomplish we are on track to accomplish. We’re now connecting Florida growers to Florida schools. In our backyard, for decades we missed an opportunity to have fresh Florida products in a school system that serves 4 million meals a day, every day, 180 days of the year. How many trade sessions would we have to do to get that kind of order?” the commissioner said.
In addition to immediate health benefits for Florida schoolchildren and an economic effect for the state — bids from local growers are coming in below average costs of previous contracts — Florida taxpayers should also save money in the future.
“Taxpayers pick up the tab for about half the meals served in the free lunch program. Fifteen years later they pick up the tab for healthcare-related costs — 60 percent of which are connected to diet-related illnesses. You’re paying at the front end and the back end,” Commissioner Putnam said. “From a fiscal standpoint, if we have an opportunity to lower our healthcare costs later in life by shaping decisions that are made and choices that are offered, why in the word wouldn’t we do that? To live in a state fortunate enough to grow all the things your mother would be proud for you to eat more of and grow them during the months that the kids are actually in school is a competitive advantage no other state brings to the table.