Major issues affecting production agriculture will be played out in the political arena in 2014, but rural America is losing its voice in the debate and must work collaboratively with other interests to effectively advocate for ag interests, says a top Monsanto official.
The farm bill, immigration reform and the Renewable Fuels Standard are all on the docket. But the Affordable Care Act, funding the government, the debt ceiling, and income inequality will take center stage, Michael Dykes, Monsanto’s vice president of legislative affairs, said Jan. 7 during the Far West Agribusiness Association’s winter conference in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Production agriculture needs a stronger voice to influence policy affecting the industry. That’s a challenge with the number of people directly involved in agriculture shrinking over time, down to only 2 percent to 3 percent of the U.S. population, he said.
The entire rural population represents less than 20 percent of the U.S. population, falling from roughly half of the population 100 years ago, he said.
“Agriculture occurs not where the votes are,” it occurs in rural America, Dykes said.
As the population moves further away from the farm, agriculture’s voice is just not what it once was. That was the point Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack made in December 2012 when he said “Rural America is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that,” he said.
The answer is working in coalitions with broad interests in feeding a growing population and safe, healthy food. The public has an interest in policy pertaining to food production, and that’s going to continue. Production agriculture has to engage those people, he said.
“Believe me, there’s interest. If you’re not educating them, the Center for Food Safety is educating them, Sierra Club is educating them. They (the public) have no idea of this level of sophistication and that you care for what you do,” he said.
The demographic changes that have occurred have an effect on policy, he said, asking if anyone would have imagined 20 years ago that a farm bill wouldn’t be passed.
But there it stands. Conferees are still not yet able to compromise, with funding food stamps the biggest bone of contention, he said.
“The farm bill is no longer a must-pass bill,” he said.
Immigration reform is another important issue for agriculture, but support is withering. The big hang-up is how to deal with the 11 million immigrants here illegally, he said.
Another issue is the Renewable Fuels Standard that sets the amount of ethanol that must be blended with gasoline and diesel. The administration adjusted the RFS for 2014, cutting the amount of corn ethanol for blending, which Dykes thinks was the administration’s intent to take pressure off the debate and prevent a repeal of the RFS, he said.
The changing demographic away from rural areas is also leading to challenges to the regulatory system and laws governing production agriculture, with environmental litigation harming the regulatory approval process for ag biotechnology, he said.
During the Clinton administration, 115 ag biotech approvals took an average of 6 months. During the Bush era, 26 approvals took an average of 20 months. In the Obama era, 16 approvals have taken an average of 35 months, he said.
The U.S. is slowing down in its approval of ag biotech advances while other countries are getting faster, he said.
In addition, the U.S. is likely to see more proposed state and federal legislation for biotech food labeling, he said.
The challenges to agriculture are going to continue, and agricultural producers need to start talking about what they do and the efficiencies agriculture has achieved and form partnerships with people in urban areas, he said.