CHICAGO — With a rapidly changing world, the agriculture and
food-related industries have to adapt to take advantage of new opportunities.
“There will be a global center for the world’s food and
agricultural system, and for the past century or more Chicago and this part of
the Midwest have been that global center,” said Bob Easter, president of the
University of Illinois. “Our goal should be nothing less than to retain that
position as we go into the future.”
He noted that this is about more than just farming.
“It’s about a complex system that involves farming, a whole
system of supporting enterprises providing inputs and those who take the
products from the farm and do something with them to add value,” he said during
the Illinois Food and Agriculture Summit, sponsored by the Vision for Illinois
Agriculture. “It’s a large set of interconnected business enterprises.”
The summit was organized to highlight ideas about how the
food and agricultural sector can reach its full potential.
“This conversation is about wealth creation and about jobs
across the breadth of the food and agricultural system,” Easter said. “Our focus
is about economic development for Illinois.”
The Vision for Illinois Agriculture plan focuses on
production agriculture, emerging bio-based industries and food
“Good work was done, but the conversation we need to have is
much broader than rural downstate Illinois,” Easter stressed.
“Chicago is a great global city,” he noted about the city
where one of three U of I campuses is located.
Currently, about 27,000 students are at the U of I campus in
Chicago, 43,000 students are at the Urbana campus and the Springfield campus has
an enrollment of 5,000 students.
“On the Chicago campus, we have the largest medical college
in the country,” the university president reported. “We graduate more doctors
every year than anyone else, and we have one of the top-ranked colleges of
pharmacy and one of the top-ranked nursing programs.”
The combination of soils and climate in the Midwest is
almost unique compared to the rest of the world, Easter said.
“Much of Africa and South America has acidic soils, which
are a challenge for those that farm them,” he said. “The Canadian providences
and Ukraine have climates that do not favor high-yielding agriculture because
those soils are at the higher latitude where the summer is short and the winter
In the 19 th century, Illinois was settled
starting at the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
“With the advent of railroads, this location on the banks of
the Chicago River and the shores of Lake Michigan made the epicenter of the
great Midwest,” Easter said.
“But more amazing is how we went from subsistence farming,
producing enough food to feed yourself, 150 years ago to a very modern
agriculture that’s focused on precision,” he said.
Easter highlighted some of the innovations that transformed
the industry. Some of these inventions included John Deere’s steel plow in 1837,
the McCormick Harvester company in 1847, the establishment of the Board of
Trade, the opening of the Illinois-Michigan Canal and the completion of the
Chicago-Union Railroad in 1848.
“The listing of standardized exchange traded forward
contracts by the CBOT occurred in 1864, providing a structure that made it
possible to manage risk and to manage the exchange of products from the farm to
the marketplace,” Easter said. “The first large-scale meat packing plant was
built in Chicago by Philip Armour in 1867.”
Armour captured the East Coast market for beef with
invention of the refrigerated railcar. Before his invention, livestock were
transported to New York to be harvested.
“Armour had a different vision. He wanted to harvest the
animals in Chicago, create jobs here and ship the product in a refrigerated car
to the East Coast,” Easter said.
“I can argue that a significant part of global agriculture
today was made in Illinois,” he said. “Those inventions that spread across the
planet created an enormous opportunity for our citizens with employment and
Today, agricultural output accounts for about 1 percent of
the total $700 billion gross domestic product economy, Easter reported.
“The farm gate value is not a major component of our
economy, but manufacturing and real estate are the leading contributors at about
12 percent,” he said. “The food and agriculture sector are deeply intertwined
with these and most other major sectors of the economy.”
Illinois has about 76,000 farming operations, Easter said,
and there are many times more jobs connected to the food and agricultural
“Illinois is home to more than 900 food processing and
manufacturing companies, adding up to over $13 billion per year to the state’s
economy,” he said. “About 1 million citizens in Illinois are in some way
employed in industries related directly to the food and agricultural
Going forward, Easter said, Illinois has significant
“Nearly 80 percent of our state’s landmass is cropland, and
almost 90 percent is considered prime farmland,” he noted.
“Illinois is at the nexus of the nation’s railway system,
serviced by over 50 different companies, and Chicago is the largest rail center
in the U.S.,” he said. “Only two states have more interstate highway miles than
In addition, Illinois has an efficient, low-cost system of
transportation with waterways.
“We have more than 1,000 miles of navigable waterways on the
borders of the state or within the state,” Easter said. “Chicago’s O’Hare
airport is an international asset.”
He stressed that as the world is changing, others are
competing in the game.
“I interact with research universities in the major centers
in Asia, India, Europe and to some extent Africa, and I’m impressed in the
massive investments those economies are making in resources for research and
preparing the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders,” he said.
“But we shouldn’t be bashful because we have some of the
world’s great research universities,” Easter noted.
“The land grant model of learning, discovery and extending
information is the envy of the world,” he said. “We need to recalibrate it for a
world that is different than it was 100 years ago.
“We need to minimize the constraints and liberate the
resources to allow innovators and entrepreneurs to create pathways for success,”