La. Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain may run for governor

Lisa Yates @Lisa_editor

La. Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Michael "Mike" Strain said he is seriously considering running for governor once Jindal's term expires.

Strain, a doctor of veterinary medicine, said he has another three years to decide, but he's definitely interested in the job.

"I will always go where I can best serve," he said. "It's something I have always said and it's always been my position."

But right now, he's staying focused serving a second term as the state's agriculture commissioner. Strain called it "the best job in the world" with a wide range of responsibilities that include promoting, protecting, and advancing agriculture and forestry, as well as soil and water resources in the state.

In addition, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) selected Strain to lead a task force focused on communicating the importance of agriculture to a national audience.

Since his appointment last month, the commissioner has kept a full calendar speaking to bankers, farmers, civic organizations, media representatives and learning institutions throughout Louisiana.

"I speak at about 7 to 10 large meetings, and do anywhere from 5 to 10 news interviews each week," he said.

Strain said he's also utilizing social media to spread his messages.

"The way we are getting information is changing rapidly," he said. "It's part of who we are and we have to embrace it."

The commissioner said he gets as many as 100 emails a day, plus messages on Facebook and Twitter.

"We try to interact as much as we can and answer every question so people will have the truth," he said.

He is concerned about the amount of false information that gets out on social media.

"There's a credibility issue," he said. "This information is not peer-reviewed by an editorial board like you would have at a newspaper. That's a concern we have with social media. We have to put out the right information."

Strain said his biggest challenge is staying up-to-date on complex issues such as food safety. He said there's a big difference between talking points and real understanding. The commissioner said he prefers to study issues in depth so he can speak with expertise on important subjects whenever the need arises, such as in crisis communication.

"I have to stay current on a myriad of issues, not just those in La., but on a national level," he said. "I do a lot of reading to develop my knowledge base in order to get a true understanding of what is going on."

One thing is certain; the outspoken commissioner does not shy away from controversial topics. He welcomed the opportunity to share his position on a number of "hot button" issues, including arsenic in rice, GMOs, animal cloning and the farm bill.

On arsenic in rice

Strain isn't concerned about the recent report by Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports) which found up to 8.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic in rice. Even though inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen, the commissioner isn't concerned. He said we've been eating the same rice for 21 years without incident.

"The FDA has been looking at these levels for 21 years," he said. "It does not dispute the levels, but instead it's a question of relevance. This is not new data."

He said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is completing its own comprehensive study which examines a lifetime of arsenic accumulation. Strain said this study is examining populations ranging in age from the very young to the elderly.

"Only if the levels are determined to be harmful, then should the FDA should set guidelines," he said.

He said results from the FDA's study is expected to be out in the next six months to a year.

Until then, the commissioner said consumers shouldn't stop eating rice.

"People should follow the recommendation of the FDA and continue to eat rice with a varied diet," he said.

On GMOs

Strain is against California's Proposition 37, which would be the first law to require labeling of genetically modified (GM) food. He said the movement to require GMO food labeling is just politics and not good public policy.

"All GMO issues are not the same," he said. "You have to understand the science behind it and the science is complicated."

He said attempts to require labeling frighten people unnecessarily. He added that 95 percent of the food we eat every day comes from GMOs.

Strain said 95 percent of all soy and 90 percent of all corn consumed today is genetically engineered and proven safe. He added GMOs are actually beneficial for many reasons, including:

• GM crops lead to lower insecticide use which benefits the environment

• GMOs increase yields, providing more food for the world's growing population

• GMOs help keep food affordable for consumers

Even though the European Union, Russia, China, Japan Korea, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand all require labeling, it is not necessary in the U.S., according to Strain.

"In Russia and Europe, they don't have the science and technology we do," he said. He added some countries use GMO labeling as a disguised restriction on international trade.

Strain said he doesn't oppose voluntarily labeling practices.

"A company can voluntarily label if it so desires," he said. "If you are looking for a product without GMOs to put on your table, you're free to do that."

On animal cloning

To date, no GM farm animal has been approved for commercial food production.

Strain said the technology is available for agricultural purposes; however, the costs are prohibitive. He compared animal cloning to a refinement of selective breeding.

"It speeds up the rate of genetic advancement," he said.

He said by cloning farmers can get an exact replica of a prize bull or cow that produces more milk. The results aren't as precise with selective breeding; therefore, cloning is a better method of achieving the desired traits.

Strain said we have to embrace science if we are to meet the challenges ahead. He said an alarming statistic released by the United Nations Population Division projected the global population could reach 9.3 billion by mid-century, and rise to 10.1 billion by 2100.

"By 2030, we've got to double food production," he said. "Failure is not an option."

On the farm bill

Strain said the failure in the House to pass a new farm bill will lead to instability in agriculture. He said food prices could skyrocket if nothing is done before January.

"We need to demand that the farm bill be heard," he said. "Call your Congressman. Speak to your neighbors and friends – anyone who'll listen."

He said farmers and ranchers need economic certainty to be able to plan and make business decisions going into next year.

Strain said it's important to embrace agriculture and understand its importance to the state's economy.

"Agriculture is a $100 million business in Ascension Parish," he said. "It's the largest sector of the state's economy, employing 1 out of every 10 people in our work force."

Even with the challenges ahead, Strain spoke optimistically about growing the state's agricultural economy. One thing he'd like to see is more truck farming where produce is grown specifically to sell at roadside stands, farmers markets or to local restaurants.

"Buy fresh and buy local," he said.