Straight Talk in D.C.

January 6, 2013 08:46 PM
Straight Talk in D.C.

Secretary Vilsack, lawmakers and experts spark dialogue from all sides of food and farm issues at the Farm Journal Forum

Agriculture has been a bright spot in the U.S. economy during the past four years. Yet poverty in rural communities remains stubbornly high.

"Our poverty rate in rural America is at 17%, significantly higher than it is in metro areas," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C., in early December. As a result, he said, rural populations are declining. "More than 50% of counties in non-metro areas have lost population in the past four years."

Vilsack was one of several speakers at the Forum to juxtapose optimism about agricultural growth and productivity with countervailing social forces such as hunger, poverty and malnutrition. A wide range of speakers provided compelling commentary on this year’s theme: navigating the intersection between policy and modern agriculture’s ability to feed the world.

No one made a splash like Vilsack, who presented what he termed a new speech about how rowcrop farmers, livestock producers and their lobbies need to present a more positive, unified view of rural America. Saying it was time for a "grown-up conversation," he took issue with constituents who worry about overregulation, bicker over policy and care more about "protecting what they have" than contributing to a new vision for rural America.

"We need a proactive message, not a reactive message," said the former governor of Iowa, who has been charged by the Obama administration with reaching out to rural constituents, who are overwhelmingly Republican. "How else are you going to encourage young people to want to be  involved in rural America or farming? Because you are competing against the world now and opportunities are everywhere," he said.

To the Secretary, the future of rural America depends on the development of bio-based businesses. Vilsack outlined the administration’s ongoing efforts to encourage rural development through broadband initiatives and to support producers pounded by the 2012 drought.

Robert Thompson of Johns Hopkins University sounded a similar refrain when he urged farmers to support international ag development, especially in the poorer nations. That might sound counter-intuitive at first blush, he said, but it might be the best market development strategy.

"[Farmers] tend to see that as developing competition," he said. "But most developing countries don’t have anywhere near enough resources to be selfsufficient in food. Particularly in East and South Asia, where there’s no more land to be brought into production and population continues to grow."

International ag development hasn’t received much attention since the mid-1980s, he noted, when foreign aid dried up and the World Bank retrenched on its investments. But interest is growing through the efforts of the Gates Foundation and U.S. companies that view developing local agriculture as the key to alleviating poverty in low-income countries.

The cruel irony is that many of the hungriest people in developing countries are farmers, noted Roger Thurow, senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of a new book, The Last Hunger Season. Many of these hungry farmers don’t own enough land to make farming profitable or can’t produce enough from their farm to feed their families.

Large, developed farms produce about 75% of the world food supply, noted Kavita Prakash-Mani, who heads the food security agenda for Syngenta International. About 500 million smaller farms with less than 2 hectares of land provide the other 25%. Tragically, these farmers "constitute about half the hungry people in the world," she said.

FJ Forum no year

Upping productivity in smallholder farms is the key, agreed a panel consisting of Thurow; Prakash-Mani; Bruce Knight, president of Strategic Conservation Solutions; Arlene Mitchell, deputy director of agricultural development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Bob Thompson, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Smallholder farmers typically produce about 1 ton of corn or rice per hectare compared with 8 to 10 tons for U.S. farmers. Poor farmers might be reluctant to use better inputs because they can’t afford them or they are traditionbound. Syngenta has been trying to break down these barriers by providing loans for inputs and supporting education.

Maximizing production. Helping smallholder farmers improve productivity is a key to feeding a burgeoning world population expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. Most of the world’s agricultural land, Thompson noted, has already been developed. Water resources might grow more scarce, considering that agriculture now uses 70% of the world’s fresh water supply and more people are moving to urban areas.

Debbie Stabenow

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) addressed the future of farm policy and discussed recent progress on the farm bill.

That’s one big reason why the Gates Foundation is funding research of new seed strains that can grow in less hospitable environments, including drought and flood conditions, Mitchell said. "We’re also looking at how to tweak photosynthesis," she added. "Whether we believe in global warming or not, we need to develop plants that withstand climate and weather shocks."

Randy Van Kooten, a Lynnville, Iowa, farmer, dramatically illustrated the unfolding challenge with a description of a riot he witnessed in Mozambique. "This is what happens when you raise the price of electricity by 5% and 50% of their disposable income goes to food. It’s an ugly sight," he said.

Van Kooten said his travels around the world as a board member of the World Soy Foundation opened his eyes to "tremendous opportunities" abroad. But the ability of U.S. farmers to tap foreign markets depends on growing foreign trade opportunities through diplomacy.

Thomas C. Dorr, former Undersecretary of Agriculture for USDA–Rural Development, argued that the U.S. is at a policy crossroads. From 1990 to 2009, he said, more than 1 billion people around the globe have migrated into the middle class, defined as having $20,000 in annual income. By 2020, another 1 billion will transition.

Yet, he said, "agriculture itself has not conveyed this kind of commitment or sense of  appreciation to the long-term value, benefit and necessity of trade to our industry, even though we’ve seen this incredible growth in the export of agricultural goods." He singled out the meat and dairy industries for "lashing out" and cited increased feed grain prices driven by ethanol demand. But he also took aim at agricultural lobbies’ slowness to support free trade agreements out of concern for protecting domestic jobs.

"If we can assume continued growth of the global middle class, and I do, then food and agricultural trade opportunities are not only exciting, they are robust and they are imposing," Dorr noted. "Further, there is simply no way that we can access these opportunities without aggressively engaging in trade and trade policy."

Maximizing opportunity. Global growth and the rise of the middle class will be the engine that sustains agriculture over the next decade, said Bruce Scherr, CEO of Informa Economics. Highlighting dramatic advances in U.S. farming productivity, he said, "There’s no better place in the world positioned to feed another 2 billion people."

But Jim Wiesemeyer, a senior vice president at Informa Economics, said it won’t happen without focused attention to world trade agreements. "You need trade liberalization. It won’t guarantee you growth, but you are not going to have it without it."


Roger Thurow, author of The Last Hunger Season, moderated a panel that provided valuable perspective on food insecurity around the world. Panelists included (from left) Randy Van Kooten, World Soy  Foundation; Arlene Mitchell, Gates Foundation; Kavita Prakash-Mani, Syngenta; and Bob Thompson, Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The ability of U.S. agriculture to feed the world hinges on domestic support. That must start with farmers and scientific allies spreading the word that domestic agriculture is safe, said Marshall Matz, an advocate for world nutrition who serves on the board of directors of the Food Research and Action Center. "The job for all of us is to explain that modern agriculture and biotechnology are sustainable and sensitive to the environment."

The industry also needs supportive agriculture policy, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. "Farmers in America need a five-year farm bill and so  does the country," she added, noting that 16 million Americans work in agriculture or related  industries. That support needs to include protection against weather events, disaster assistance for livestock producers and a dairy safety net, she said.

Agriculture policy needs to be inclusive, said Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, referring to the differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. The Senate bill would pay farmers for losses that crop insurance doesn’t cover, an approach preferred by corn and soybean groups. A largely Southern constituency of rice and peanut farmers prefers the target price option in the House bill. "If we don’t have a bill that everyone is part of, then why have a bill?" Lucas countered.

In any case, Lucas emphasized the need to reduce spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which dominates the ag budget, without taking "one calorie off of one deserving person’s plate."

No one at the conference suggested that SNAP go away. Several speakers pointed to its simulative impact on agriculture. Lisa Sutherland, an adjunct professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth College who formerly worked for Kellogg and Wal-Mart, noted that every $1 billion spent on SNAP creates 18,000 jobs, including 3,000 on farms. She spoke on a panel that examined our domestic food paradox.

 Frank Lucas

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) addressed the future of farm policy and discussed recent progress on the farm bill.

Even though there are 45 million SNAP recipients, one-third of children and two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. A full 21% of the federal budget goes to Medicare and Medicaid, much of it to treat people with chronic disease brought on by being overweight, said Robin Schepper, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She questioned why we "reimburse for health care, but not well-care."

Lindsey Palmer, director of nutrition and community outreach for DC Central Kitchen, said the nonprofit fights hunger and unhealthy eating habits by providing 5,000 meals daily and looking for creative solutions.

Hosted in partnership with Informa Economics, the Forum’s premier sponsors were Farm Credit Services and SFP. Supporting sponsors were BASF, Charleston|Orwig, CropLife America, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, FMC, and Syngenta, in association with the Farmers Feeding the World initiative.

For photos, transcripts and videos from the FarmJournal Forum, visit

You can e-mail Boyce Thompson at


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