"If we continue to flat-line our commitment to research, our productivity will likely suffer," Vilsack said. "This at a time when our productivity will have to increase to meet the global demand for food."
The issue also is important to the U.S. economy. He said farm exports are expected to reach a record $137 billion this year for an export surplus of $42 billion, with 1 million jobs added.
Vilsack, who spoke a week after a massive dust storm struck the Texas Panhandle, also said conservation should be another priority in the new Farm Bill. Dust storms happen when wind picks up dry, loose soil.
Vilsack said farmers have voluntarily enrolled a record number of acres in conservation programs and "clearly, we cannot afford to let up" in that effort.
There has been discussion about Congress scaling back the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays them not to plow up and farm land. Vilsack called on Congress to continue its commitment to improving conservation programs with more flexibility and a simpler, more streamlined application process.
"In the last 30 years, producers have reduced soil erosion by 40 percent and agriculture has become the leading cause of restoring wetlands," he said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.