By Dan Murphy, veteran food-industry journalist and commentator, Vance Publishing

Love him or loathe him, President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday touched on an important and utterly essential principle that ought to guide our government: What is best for the country?

That's because our national politics are currently swirling around a narrow, selfish mentality of what's in for me? Today?

On almost any issue, various factions spend all their time and all their capital on a singular quest to secure funding for their projects, their needs or their constituencies, rather than looking beyond right here and right now.

Ethanol is a perfect example.

We know that growing corn to be refined into a liquid fuel that has to be distributed across the country via a system of pipelines and storage tanks and trucks is not the solution to our dependence on fossil fuels. Heck, depending on whose data you favor, ethanol production may not be creating ANY net energy at all.

But we also know that our addiction to massive, costly imports of foreign oil is neither smart nor sustainable, and domestic ethanol is a valuable stopgap on the way to a renewable energy future.

Yet farmers are all in favor of the federal subsidies that keep the ethanol industry afloat, because it puts money in their pockets. Livestock producers and food manufacturers, on the other hand, are crying foul because ethanol diversion has driven up the price of the corn they need to feed their animals and produce an array of food products.

Politically, you have policymakers adamant about their positions on both sides of the ethanol debate, and in the end it becomes a battle over who's got more leverage, rather than what's the best policy for agriculture and for the country.

Forging ahead vs. cutting back

Even worse, the political power struggle is now focused on a potentially traumatic objective: slashing federal spending as means to reduce our national debt.

That would be a huge mistake. Rather than scaling back on support for the applications of science and technology that will become the pillars of tomorrow's economy, as the president said, we should be ramping up our investment in education, infrastructure and R&D across the board.

And a big piece of that "infrastructure" includes our agricultural and food production systems.

That's because I believe agriculture has a vital role to play in dealing with three of our biggest and most important challenges: energy independence, environmental protection and food security — and they involve not just Americans but the population of the entire planet.

With energy, we need massive investment in farm-based wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources. Farmers have the land, the access to raw materials and the ability to utilize much of the energy locally or even on site. Every barn and growout house should be powered by wind and solar and heated with methane. Every truck and tractor should be running on biofuel made locally or even right on the farm.

Long-term, low-cost loans could finance such an investment, with the payback coming from savings on the fossil fuel inputs currently needed to run a modern farming operation. But that kind of funding has to come from the public sector.

With regard to environmental protection, there are several critical issues, ranging from climate destabilization to resource conservation to habitat protection, on which the farm community can and must be recruited to help advance solutions. We cannot continue to mine aquifers and pave over farmland and ignore the environmental impact of our food production systems indefinitely. Yet promoting greater sustainability and implementing more eco-friendly production methods must be based on sound science and rigorous research — and that again must come in large measure from government funding.

And on food security, we delude ourselves if we naively believe that only market forces should control how and where our food supply is produced. It's not only possible, but highly likely that, absent the development of a comprehensive national food security policy, we will be facing a future in which entire sectors of agriculture, like our manufacturing base, are "outsourced" to other countries on other continents.

That would be a profound disaster and one that would be virtually impossible to reverse.

We need more — much more — investment in agricultural R&D. We need more, not less, support for promoting agricultural diversity. We need to provide more, not less, funding to ensure that prime farmland isn't lost to development or abandoned due to market forces. We need more, not less, funding to educate and train our next generation of agricultural researchers, scientists and technicians. We need more, not less government credit available to advance on-farm productivity and value-added production.

Unfortunately, none of that by itself evokes the "Sputnik moment" the president was reaching for in his State of the Union speech. When it comes to agriculture, we lack a galvanizing event to override our provincial political instincts.

Perhaps more importantly, none of that agenda gets accomplished without some sacrifice, and that means taxation, along with budget cutting elsewhere — ie, defense spending — strategies that too many of our so-called leaders simply cannot countenance.

But a mindless, politically motivated rush to slash spending is short-sighted and self-destructive.

It would be bad for agriculture, and bad for the country.