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Commissioner Todd Staples: 'The stars have all lined up for Texas'

by Chip Carter | September 02, 2010
Todd Staples became commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture in a landslide 2006 election. Previously, he had been a member of both houses of the Texas Legislature. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1995 and joined the Senate in 2000.

Commissioner Staples' focus since 2006 has been placed squarely on Texas agriculture, present and future, with goals like creating jobs in rural parts of the state, increasing profit margins for producers via technology and value- added processing, and furthering the promotion of Texas-produced products around the world.

Commissioner Staples spoke with The Produce News Aug. 19 for a Lone Star State update.

THE PRODUCE NEWS — While much of the rest of the country is still struggling, the Texas economy in general and agriculture in particular are thriving.

COMMISSIONER STAPLES — The stars have all lined up for Texas. There are several reasons I think our economy in Texas has outperformed — by twice as much — any other competitor state and citrus state. We’re a low-tax state, we have a fair civil justice system, we have a stable regulatory environment and we have a very dynamic agriculture industry. Those are four key elements that have allowed us to prosper and will serve us well as we move forward in the next couple of decades and [into] the tremendous growth we expect.

TPN — During a recent trip to Texas, I heard a lot of optimism and saw much opportunity for growth.

STAPLES — Those are opportunities that define the character and attitude of Texas. We are very optimistic. We understand that there are challenges, but challenge brings opportunity. We have the infrastructure in place not only to be a producer but to be a player in the global distribution system. Texans understand that trade equals jobs, and we have good relationships with our trading partners and understand the value of enhancing those relationships even further. We understand [that] profitability and sustainability has come through technology. We have a dynamic research and extension program. We have some of the leading universities in the world. Our producers and our academic research institutions understand it’s ultimately the consumer that makes decisions. We share information; we have the philosophy that a rising tide lifts all ships, and I don’t think you can argue with the results that we’ve had here over the last couple of decades. The numbers are strong.

TPN — A lot of that growth and future opportunity is in the Rio Grande Valley, due in no small part to trade partnership possibilities along the Mexican border.

STAPLES — In reality, in so many of those communities [on either side of the border], it’s almost just one economy because of the day trade that occurs. You saw the rapid growth and prosperity along the Texas border — it has been phenomenal in the last few years.

TPN — So we know the positives for Texas agriculture. What are some of the obstacles?

STAPLES — I will say there is a great level of concern when you look at some [pending] environmental policies that do not appear to be science-based and are not being viewed from an outcome basis. Are we making the system better or are we adding cost to producers, which makes our products less competitive? Our producers don’t see the consumer being served through these potential changes. Texas producers are happy to go wherever the science leads us. That’s what has made us the leader in the world today. But we want the decision based on hard science, not on political science.

TPN — As is the case everywhere these days, there is a major focus on food safety in Texas.

STAPLES — It’s so important to remind consumers that we have the safest, most affordable, most reliable food supply in the world today in America. We always need to look for newer and better ways to ensure consumers have a good experience and that food safety is enhanced. I think from a regulatory perspective, government needs to complement what the private industry is voluntarily doing — private industry spends millions if not billions annually to ensure proper food safety — not duplicate it. And we need to not have a dual system to ensure that as we make domestic changes, those same standards are applied wherever our foods come from. All you do by adding cost without increasing consumer benefit is move production outside the borders of the USA to areas where they have lower environmental standards, lower labor standards and lower food-safety standards.

TPN — Many Texas produce companies have operations or import from Mexico.

STAPLES — And those are held to the same standards as Texas growers. Many of our Texas-based businesses do have production facilities across the border. I think that is a natural set of circumstances when you look at proximity and technological advances. We want to develop partnerships in a meaningful way. We know we’re not totally independent — we know we don’t like being dependent on foreign oil. We cannot become dependent on foreign food to the extent that it undermines our national economy and our independence. Food security and national security are the same issue. All you need to do is look around this world at countries that have poor economies and civil unrest, and most of the time you’ll find they can’t feed themselves.

TPN — You mention stability as one of Texas’ strengths. How might troubles in Mexico like the ongoing and escalating drug cartel violence affect that?

STAPLES — One thing that threatens our stability is the unrest we see south of the border. Stability and predictably are very important for investment, whether it’s in farming and ranching or investment bankers on Wall Street. And today you have volatility in Mexico. It’s definitely going to hurt continued investment and will limit growth opportunities for them. Texans understand the importance of your neighbors doing well. And we want to see these problems come to an end.

TPN — What are the other major issues Texas is dealing with?

STAPLES — Our producers spend a lot of time on water management within Texas and water shared with Mexico. That is a major issue for us. Immigration is certainly on the minds of Texas producers — they want to stop illegal immigration and work toward a stable legal immigration system that ensures we have secure borders. Environmental concerns not being science-based. And having access to foreign markets, working with trading partners that are operating on the same basis that we do in terms of free trade and fair trade. Texas continues to be a place welcoming investment, welcoming growth, looking for expanded production and agricultural production. Agriculture is a huge part of our state’s past, but it is also a big part of the future of the Lone Star State.