SIUC College of Agriculture's 50th Anniversary
Thank you. It's always great to be here in Carbondale, and a real honor to speak here at SIUC's first Agriculture Industry Day.
Now, I'll be honest - I haven't done all that much farming living on the South Side of Chicago. But I have to say, my fondest farming memory is when I once offered to help out a friend with his harvest. Knowing the full range of my agricultural experience and expertise, he took one look at me and said..."no thanks."
So when I saw that you guys needed a keynote speaker for a lecture entitled, "Growing the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Economy in Southern Illinois," I said "sign me up."
But seriously, while I don't farm, what I did do during my eight years in the Illinois State Senate, and what I'm doing now as a Senator in Washington, is to constantly listen and learn from people who do farm and who do know the business. And that has helped me tremendously in figuring out how I can best stand up and speak out on the issues that matter to family farmers and to the future of agriculture in this country.
Thanks to all the hard work you're doing here at SIU, that future holds more promise and more potential for America with each passing day. Because in a world where globalization has made it possible for a student in Carbondale to share ideas with one in Calcutta, yet necessary for them to compete for the same jobs, the advances you're making in agriculture could lead to the breakthroughs we need to maintain America's global leadership in the years to come.
This is our new challenge for the new century - and it's different than anything we've ever faced before.
Just think about what the world was like only fifty years ago, when the College of Agriculture was a small, five-man department that taught its students in a few old army barracks. Back then, the big challenge was navigating the soils found in the hills and valleys of southern Illinois. If you could master that, you were ready to graduate and live the farming life, knowing that it would be enough to provide for you and your family.
And even if you didn't go to a fine school like SIU, in those days you still had a shot at the American Dream. Because whether it was on the farm or in a factory, a middle-class job that paid a decent wage and good benefits was easy to come by - and it would probably last you a lifetime. Hard work and sacrifice paid off for most families, and because of the wealth they built, America's economic leadership was unchallenged.
But the world has certainly changed since then, hasn't it?
Today, even a college degree doesn't guarantee a middle-class job that will support a family. What's worse, the cost of getting that degree and the price of health care on that job are rising higher and faster than ever before. Family farmers are being squeezed by big agribusiness, and factory jobs are heading across the ocean where labor is cheap.
We can make sure that the new jobs and new industries that take their place stay in America - but it won't happen by itself. Countries like India and China are churning out more and more qualified college graduates who can compete directly with Americans for jobs that can now be done anywhere in the world. If we want to stay on top, we'll need a nationwide commitment to better education, better training, and the research and discovery that have always made America a land of innovation and optimism.
This is where you guys come in.
The title of this lecture - "Growing the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Economy in Southern Illinois" - is really too narrow to capture the full potential of the work you're doing here at the College of Agriculture. Fifty years ago, it may have only been about the economy in southern Illinois. Fifty years ago, the work you're doing may not have had an impact beyond the farms and borders of a small town like Carbondale.
But today we live in a different world.
Today, a discovery made right here in your Food and Nutrition department could save a person from a lifetime of diabetes in southern California. An SIU student who publishes a paper online about the benefits of soy in preventing prostate cancer could attract the attention of a researcher in Boston who's working on a cure. And a professor who makes a breakthrough in developing drought-resistant crops could save millions from hunger in Africa.
Today, the work you're doing here not only has the potential to improve the lives of people in Illinois and across the world; it offers the opportunity to develop new ideas that will lead to new jobs and a new competitive edge for America in the 21st century. This is the way we can win in the global economy, and here at this school in this Illinois small town, you're helping us get there.
Right now, researchers at this college are studying ways to improve the production and efficiency of ethanol. Again, this may sound small, but just imagine what this could do for our country.
Any of you who've pulled into a gas station lately have noticed how high the prices are getting. You might have decided to drive your car less, or you might have noticed that the cost of gas is cutting into your family budget. The price of oil has now climbed to a record of over $50 a barrel, and we don't even know how much worse it's going to get.
So what do we do about this?
We only have 3% of the world's oil reserves - 65% of our oil is imported from the Middle East. So unless we want to stay dependent forever on a region of the world that's dangerous, politically unstable, and willing to do lord-knows-what with the price of oil, we must find new sources of energy here in America.
It seems like politicians have been saying this forever. But when you look at the record gas prices, and the possibility for more war and turmoil in the Middle East, it's clear that we need less talk and more action.
We can start by producing more ethanol in America.
The future of energy in this country doesn't have to remain in the deserts of the Middle East; we can find it in the corn fields of Illinois and across the Midwest.
Imagine running our cars with a fuel we can literally grow as much as we want of. Imagine using a fuel that's clean and healthy, that's selling for 50 cents cheaper than gasoline, and that places America's energy needs in America's hands.
This kind of future is here - but to expand ethanol's promise across the nation, you guys need to keep up the great research here and we need to step up the legislative process in Washington.
Recently, I joined a few other Senators in introducing a bill that would increase America's renewable fuel standard and increase ethanol production along with it. A bill like this that's already passed the Senate twice would've provided us with 500,000 barrels a day of refined ethanol for use in gasoline and would save us $4 billion every year in imported oil and gasoline costs.
Just think of what this would do for our economy. Farmers would earn more for their corn, businesses would invest more in the type of community-sized ethanol facilities that would grow the downstate economy, and over 200,000 jobs would be created. We've got bipartisan support for this bill, so I'm pretty confident that this is the year we're finally going to get it done.
The other ethanol bill I've introduced would make it easier for more cars to be powered by cheaper, cleaner, ethanol-based fuel. As most of you probably know, there's a fuel known as E85 that's made from 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. It's a great alternative to gasoline, but the only problem is that we're in short supply of E85 fueling stations. Down here in southern Illinois, you drive by miles and miles of corn fields that can produce ethanol, but only 3 E85 stations in all of southern Illinois, and not one in Carbondale. So the bill I'm sponsoring would provide a tax credit of 50% to anyone who wants to build an E85 fuel station. And to give consumers a good deal too, it'll provide a tax credit of 35 cents per gallon of E85 fuel.
We've talked for too long about energy independence in this country, and I think these proposals finally give us an opportunity to do something about it. You've all been doing your part here at SIU, and it's high time for Washington to do our part.
I've always believed that the incredible story of progress that is America has been built by those who ask why, what if, and why not - questions asked by the very students at this college every day they choose to confront the challenges of this new century. It is this fundamental character of the American spirit - the desire to move forward, look around the next corner, and reach for the unreachable - that put the first man on the moon, led to a cure for polio, and launched the technological revolution of the nineties.
And as the College of Agriculture looks ahead to its next fifty years, we'd do well to ask ourselves "What will they say about us at the 100th anniversary?" As we face a new and different world that brings both great promise and great peril, what will we do move America towards a new and better day?
You won't find the answers from your professors - and certainly not from politicians. You'll find them by continuing to ask yourselves those questions - why, what if, and why not. And as you keep studying and researching here at school, remember that the answers you discover will not only have an impact where you live and learn, but across a world that is just waiting to hear from the next generation of dreamers. Thank you.