Look at a map of the 2012 election results by county and you quickly see the urban-rural divide in America. The vast swath of the heartland, much of the West and most of the South are red, while the urban areas, the East and West Coasts are blue.
The rural population is shrinking. Ironically, one reason for the urban migration is agriculture’s efficiency. It takes fewer and fewer farmers and ranchers to feed the nation. That means less people with a connection to, and knowledge of, agriculture. It also means fewer Members of Congress who represent agriculture districts.
Secretary Tom Vilsack put it bluntly at a December 19th Forum on Agricultural Innovation hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “Rural America can no longer elect the President.” Similarly, The Economist asks, “Is Rural America still politically relevant?”
Democrats must learn how to connect with rural Americans but the converse is also true. Farmers, farm organizations and production agriculture must learn how to talk to Democrats.
I would suggest a three-part strategy:
· Expand the message;
· Broaden the target audience; and
· Debunk the myths about production agriculture.
President Obama’s number one domestic priority is jobs and the economy, including the rural economy. He told the American Farm Bureau that “We need an economy built to last; an economy built on things we make and produce.” Most importantly, the President then included agriculture in that category.
We frequently cite net farm income and export numbers but let’s take it a step further and connect the dots. While only a few hundred thousand farmers can feed the country, it is net farm income that drives the rural economy. It is important to rural banks, implement dealers and the coffee shops on Main Street.
Secretary Vilsack is on a mission to demonstrate the importance of agriculture and rural development pointing out that agriculture supports 1 in 12 jobs. Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow notes that “One out of every four jobs in Michigan depends on agriculture.” Senator Stabenow and Ranking Member Collin Peterson know that developing and expanding rural economies is critical to a successful national economy but most urban Democrats do not understand this relationship.
The President has made energy policy, including biofuels a very high priority. Biofuels are very important to the rural economy and to the President’s goal of energy independence. Here, again, we need to connect the dots and link it to production agriculture.
Global food security is important to the President, urban Members of Congress and editorial writers. The Administration, from President Obama to the State Department, the White House National Security Council, USAID and USDA, has put global food security front and center. In addressing the Symposium on Global Food Security on May 18th, the President said, “As the wealthiest nation on Earth, I believe the United States has a moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition and partner with others…Food security is a moral imperative but it is also an economic imperative…We have a self interest in this.”
The Camp David Declaration, written by the National Security Staff and adopted by the Group of Eight (G8), followed suit: “Today we commit…to take to scale new technologies and other innovations that can increase sustainable agriculture production.” In order to effectively scale up new technologies there has to be greater cooperation between the G8 countries and China on synchronizing the regulatory systems.
Africa contains a majority of the world’s under-utilized agriculture land. Helping Africans bring the green revolution to Africa is important to the economic growth of Africa but it is also the key to global food security. The Department of Agriculture has entered into an agreement with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to transfer technology and training. In short, global food security brings another political constituency to the table for production agriculture.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently gave a speech on “Transformational Trends.” The Secretary said, “The United States is moving economics to the center of foreign policy.” She noted, “We rightly call America the indispensable nation when it comes to climate change, poverty, hunger and disease.” Agriculture has a role to play on all of these issues, including preventing disease.
The Target Audience
After expanding the message, we should strive to carry the message to a wider audience.
Berkeley author Michael Pollan may support higher food prices as a way of fighting obesity but keeping down the cost of food is important to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and anti-hunger advocates.
The Food Research Action Center (FRAC) and Feeding America are leading advocates for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the food stamp program. The SNAP program currently costs $80 billion. If the price of food increases from 10 percent of Americans’ disposable income to 15 percent, the cost of SNAP will exceed $100 billion and low income people will face a terrible challenge. Higher food prices could lead to more demands for cutting benefits, which would hurt food sales. The CBC, FRAC, other anti-hunger groups, as well as the National Consumers League, should be briefed and brought into the discussion on the relationship between production agriculture and the price of food.
On June 1, 2013, some forty organizations wrote to the President commending the Administration’s National Bioeconomy Blueprint. The list of organizations included many scientific organizations. The Vatican’s scientific advisors have also expressed their support for science as a moral duty. In a statement condemning opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops in rich countries, a group of scientists, including leading members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, demanded a relaxation of “excessive, unscientific regulations” for approving GM crops, saying that these prevent the development of crops for the “public good.”
There should be a sustained effort to reach out to leading scientists who can provide third party validation for what the agriculture sector is saying on technology.
Alleviating poverty in rural America is also a priority for the Administration. Expanding production agriculture, especially on Indian Reservations where unemployment is as high as 70-80 percent, is an effective way to attack rural poverty. The National Congress of American Indians and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association are interested in an Indian Agriculture Act. These organizations would make excellent allies when approaching the Administration and Democrats in Congress.
I think you get the idea: we must connect production agriculture to larger issues and educate more stakeholders. Lastly, we must address the concerns and myths about production agriculture.
When it comes to commercial food production, more than any other issue, consumers are concerned that production agriculture might be hurting the environment and contributing to climate change. You can’t be silent on this issue and expect it to go away. The science is on our side but we need to address this issue directly. Americans do not understand that modern agriculture is sustainable and that farmers rely on healthy soil and clean water.
Earlier this year, the United Nations released the Secretary-General’s report on global sustainability entitled Resilient Planet, Resilient People. It says: “New ‘green’ biotechnology can play a valuable role in enabling farmers to adapt to climate change, improve resistance to pests, restore soil fertility and contribute to the diversification of the rural economy.”
A UN report may not score many points with the American public but it is a very good source of information to rely upon at the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy at the White House and with Congressional Democrats.
Another popular myth is that production agriculture is at war with organic agriculture. There is a demand for organic foods and locally produced foods (not the same thing) which is respected by production agriculture. While pointing out the importance of the organic industry, however, it is fair to note that is only 5 percent of the U.S. food supply. It is production agriculture, using modern technology and biotechnology that accounts for 95 percent the f the food supply and energy crops too. In the wake of the close vote on Prop 37 and the FDA decision on salmon, we must debunk the myths associated with production agriculture and make it more transparent.
It is production agriculture that drives down the cost of food, stimulates rural development, produces our renewable energy and holds the promise of global food security. That is an effective, pragmatic, message to bring to Democrats and all American consumers.