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 manufacturing.

“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 is long.”

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 investment returns.”

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 economy.

“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 system.”

Going forward, Easter said, Illinois has significant strategic assets.

“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 Illinois.”

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,” he added.