California agriculture's struggle to educate the state's urban populace about its farm sector received a strong expression of support mixed with sympathy from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng last week during a speech in Los Angeles.
However, the nation's top food official did not provide any political solutions or rallying cries for producers at a time when many are waging an uphill battle against passage of ballot Proposition 65, known as the anti-toxics initiative, in next week's statewide election.
Among other things, the ballot measure would limit the release of carcinogenic chemicals into drinking water supplies. Additionally, employers would be required to inform workers and consumers of potentially dangerous exposure to such compounds. And existing penalties for illegal dumping would increase. Analysts have said that the bill's passage would damage agricultural interests by limiting the use of pesticides and other chemicals on crops.
"What a difficult job it is to explain the problems of farming out there to the general public, or even that they (consumers) should be interested in listening," Lyng said.
His remarks were made at a fund-raiser for the California Agriculture Showcase at the Museum of Science and Industry. The exhibit, reportedly one of the museum's most popular, illustrates the farm system.
"California is unique," Lyng said. "This is the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation in terms of production. But it is also the No. 1 state in population. At times, there can be a conflict between this (urban) population and farmers."
Lyng said that consumers do not oppose farmers, per se, but they simply don't understand agriculture. He said most people think that the food system begins and ends at the local supermarket, which is open 24 hours a day, has year-round temperature control, offers thousands of products and is conveniently abandoned for another food store if service fails to satisfy.
"When the state's population is farther and farther away from farm land, then things like (Proposition 65) are likely to happen," he said. "There is a desire on the part of the population to have zero risks and zero tolerances from (agricultural) chemicals. . . . They want no risks whatsoever even if the state's No. 1 industry suffers terribly."
Lyng said that regardless of the vote on Proposition 65, he believes that the issue will soon expand to a national concern.
The first U.S. Agriculture secretary from California also commented on several other food-related issues during his Los Angeles appearance, such as domestic hunger and grain sales to the Soviet Union.
On the hunger front, Lyng said federal efforts in this area have accomplished their objectives.
"We have achieved what then-President Nixon asked for (when initiating several food assistance programs) and that was the elimination of poverty-caused hunger," he said. "There is still hunger created by things such as child abuse and displaced persons who (have found themselves homeless) due to the closing of mental hospitals and reduced care for these people. But these are social problems that the secretary of Agriculture shouldn't address."
Lyng also stated there is no shortage of food worldwide, but rather a distribution problem caused by a lack of funds. As a result, impoverished and famine-stricken nations are unable to support the costs of either purchasing or delivering food to the hungry.
Earlier this year, Lyng was the Cabinet member who announced the Reagan Administration's plan for subsidizing U.S. wheat sales to the Soviets. At the time, he said the move was being made to help farmers compete in glutted international markets. Even with the financial incentive, the Soviets refused to buy any U.S. grain.
The inaction occurred despite a previous bilateral agreement that called for the Soviets to purchase as much as 4 million tons during the 12-month period ending in September.
In reviewing the situation, Lyng said there had been "no material effect" on the U.S. farm economy because of the Soviet Union's failure to acquire American wheat.
"Four million tons is a nice sum, but it is a small percentage of our total exports," he said.
In closing, the agriculture secretary retold a historical anecdote about how parts of Northern California were under Russian control as late as the 1840s, but the area was thought to lack promise as farm land. And so, the Russians sold their substantial holdings to miner John Sutter for about $30,000.
"The Russians were not too smart then and they are not too smart now," Lyng said.
Taking Credit for Sales--The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was quick to reprint a positive assessment of the agency's regulatory action in the $7 billion over-the-counter medication market. However, in taking partial credit for the category's retail success, the FDA apparently glossed over previous official concerns about the promotion of vitamin and mineral supplements--which play an important role in non-prescription health aid sales.