I was asked by a European journalist the other day about the prospective impact of the 2012 elections on agriculture policy in the U.S. He wanted to know if any of the GOP candidates have “strong feelings” about agriculture policy, and do I think President Obama “gets it” when it comes to on-farm production and the importance of ag overall in the grand federal scheme of things. This is a question I, as a lobbyist, don’t like to answer. The rule is you don’t offend anyone in office, or who could be elected to office, who can mess with your livelihood.
But the question piqued my interest. After all, right up there with gas prices, food prices are near and dear to every voter’s heart, right? So I took to the web to see where Mssrs. Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul stand on ag issues, comparing what I found with what I know about President Obama’s priorities based on his programs and policies put forward so far.
Overall and from a priority standpoint, agriculture doesn’t sit anywhere near the top of any candidate’s list of issues, and that includes President Obama’s list. Based on statements presented on the candidates’ websites or gleaned from various media interviews, the candidates pay lip service to “a strong agriculture” or “this country’s farmers deserve our support,” but when it comes right down to it, there’s no there there.
We can assume Rick Santorum has the greatest experience with ag issues. After all, he was member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture during his congressional tenure. However, while some statements during the Iowa caucuses may have ingratiated him to some voters, agriculture is conspicuously absent from his policy roster. The positions of Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts – not a “major” ag state – are also devoid anything resembling an agriculture/food policy. Rep. Ron Paul, the lone libertarian from the most rural state in the GOP race, talks about free trade and such, but nothing detailed is offered. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich presided over many a House floor debate on ag/food bills, and comes from perhaps the nations’ largest poultry state, not to mention peanuts and all, but again, little public messaging can be found on farming, ranching or agriculture.
President Obama over time has demonstrated agriculture, to him, is an national export income machine, a biofuels feedstock source, a place where everyone should “know your farmer, know your food”and rural America is that part of the country desperately in need of greater broadband Internet access and options for off-farm employment. Again, no public priority is consistently placed on agriculture.
Is this lack of prominence for food and ag issues because there are relatively few aggie voters out there in the fly-over states, and the candidates play to the urban centers and industrial states? The answer is likely “yes” to both questions. But I think a big part of the reason for the absence of ag from political agendas is the disconnect between the general public – that generally includes the candidates – and the media when it comes to where food comes from, the challenges confronting those who produce the food and how to connect these issues to the national agenda.
To the public “food production” is a given; it’s always been there, always will be, and, while prices may bounce a few percentage points, food is generally affordable. Right now, the great majority of the voting public cares about gas prices, jobs, taxes and all things personally macroeconomic.
The media covering the candidates couldn’t care less about the issues confronting agriculture. Why? In the parlance of my former profession, it just ain’t sexy. Take the assumptions and priorities of the general public and layer over the agriculture/agribusiness ignorance of the average political reporter. That pretty much says it all.
Every national agriculture and food group should put together a list of key questions on the issues impeding their members’ success. These questionnaires should be put squarely in front of each candidate – including President Obama, and no, it is not acceptable to wait until after the GOP convention – with the admonition we won’t accept “I-support-farmers” answers. We want thoughtful, detailed responses because we’re going to publish them as widely as possible.
And my personal preference: Any candidate who uses the words “cuisine,” “artisanal” or “locovore” is off the list.