Inside D.C.

“Hell of a thought” — maybe

Lost amid the politicking and the spending rhetoric was a notion floated last week by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.  While acknowledging it won’t happen on his watch, Vilsack opined the next administration should create a White House Food Council, similar to the Rural Council or the Council on Environmental Quality. That’s where folks the media like to dub “czars” wind up working in a new White House.

The council’s job, he said, would be to coordinate efficiently the jobs of various federal agencies and departments which regulate food and agriculture issues.  The council, he said, would help develop better collaboration and coordination among producers, processors and food marketers, create a “more stable situation” for commodity prices, and coordinate production practices more closely.

Said Vilsack, “We have the Council on Environmental Quality, the Rural Council…(and) I think the time has come for the administration to strongly consider a food council.” Vilsack said.  “We have 15 different agencies involved in food safety, trade and regulatory issues of one kind or another. I think we’re the only major country in the world that has that many fingers in the pie.”

Given Vilsack is Democrat Hillary Clinton’s number one agriculture/food policy surrogate, the idea must have some gravitas within the Clinton camp.  This week, after an appearance at the Washington Ag Roundtable lunch, top Donald Trump advisor Sam Clovis was asked by reporters what he thought of Vilsack’s idea.  His response: “Hell of a thought, don’t you think?”

The question becomes one of definition.  In the DC politician’s mind, the words “food,” and “rural” and “agriculture” tend to be synonymous.  The fact is, they don’t share the same core meaning, though, admittedly, they obviously overlap, just not necessarily with the same priorities.  Among the groups which represent those areas, there’s far less than 100% agreement on priorities, problems and solutions.

When it comes to “food,” the corporate processing companies believe they are the go-to constituency. “Rural” issues tend to have a socio-economic basis, with talk of large versus small farms, education, health care, unemployment and such.  This leaves “agriculture” as the sandbox in which farmers and ranchers of all stripes, their suppliers and others conduct the business of actual food production.  Can the broader roster play nicely together?

Much would depend on who’s sitting in the White House, and what that person’s personal, political and party priorities are when it comes to agriculture, food and rural issues.  If the President wants to talk global food security, well, that’s one of those 30,000-foot issues in which all have some stake.  If he/she wants to concentrate on rural issues, then farmers and other rural residents have a dog in that fight.  But if the issue is nutrition labeling or added sodium or what does the world “natural” really mean, should everyone be invited to comment?

As important is who would sit on such a council?  Would it be the 15 politicians and federal bureaucrats currently wrestling with those issues as Vilsack points out?  Would it be a bipartisan effort?  Would civilians be allowed to participate, or more to the point, should they be allowed to participate?

This last question nags me as one of the chief complaints from the country is that Washington, DC, doesn’t know corn from canola or the north end of a cow from the south end of a sow.  At the same, does the New York City or Los Angeles CEO of a multinational food company truly understand the challenges of crop and animal production, or the need to balance incentives encouraging new farmers against the retirement of veteran producers?  Conversely, does a mid-size pork producer or rancher have any empathy for the pains of mahogany row in the urban food industry?

I may Google the Rural Council, to find out why it’s part of the White House regime, what it’s supposed to do and what it’s actually accomplished.  I’m more familiar with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ); however, I’m not impressed with any organization with a “czar” at its helm.

Presidents predating Mr. Obama appointed senior advisors — “assistant to the President for food and agriculture policy.”  These individuals often came off Capitol Hill with significant seniority and experience.  Historically, their counsel was valued by the nation’s chief executive because it was based upon an acute understanding of how food, rural and agriculture priorities mesh and how they differ.

I think the notion of a White House Food Council is a good one for discussion.  However, it’s one that must be thought out very, very carefully, first answering honestly:  “Do we really need it?”

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