Agriculture has always taken pride in the fact that it was one area that experienced very little partisan wrangling. Everyone needs to eat; everyone benefits from a safe, wholesome and vibrant agricultural economy; and domestic food production is a national security issue, as well.
However, that non-partisan atmosphere has been quickly eroding, as election maps show rural America becoming more red, and urban America becoming more blue. That isn’t to say that there’s necessarily a conflict between urban and rural America when it comes to good farm policy, but rather that there is more opportunity for political opportunism as a result.
This may be especially acute this year. Not only is it an election year, but we increasingly are being forced to face economic reality. This country simply can’t continue to spend far more than we take in. We must dramatically reduce spending, and that means new alignments based on priorities.
It’s important to remember that the biggest line items in USDA’s budget have little to do with production, but rather fund programs like food stamps/welfare and conservation. Throw in the fact that the ag sector has been doing much better than the general economy (which might be a long-term trend), and ag policy and budgeting have the potential to become as partisan and politically driven as any issue.
What does that mean for producers? It’s simple; our voice in ag policy formation will continue to be minimized, and whenever we fail to speak with one voice, we are at the risk of seeing significant policy changes. Nobody expects this to be the year for major changes in the areas of livestock marketing, ethanol production, producer payment programs, or even welfare and conservation programs. Rather, we can expect more subtle changes in priorities and at least a reduction in the growth of spending.
Ag interests are at the table and are still being listened to, but if ag policy continues to become more partisan, we can expect these debates to heat up and our influence on ag policy to continue to wane. With a growing world population to feed, and with American producers expected to lead the way in accomplishing that task, one would expect it would be difficult to muster support for serious changes.
It can be argued that American ag subsidizes every other U.S. industry by increasing the amount of income available to spend on other necessities and elective products. But unless the day comes when people can’t take the success of American agriculture for granted, we’ll continue to be a minor concern in the context of the broader political debate.
With $16 trillion in federal debt and climbing, the bottom line is that we can’t keep robbing Peter to pay Paul; eventually Peter will run out of money. Don’t let the quietness of this year’s farm bill lull us into a false sense of security. Ag policy has always been rooted in what is becoming the largest debate our country faces, and that is whether government should control production practices, the market and, ultimately, prices; or should we let the free market, capitalism, and the entrepreneurial spirit be the drivers?
As this clash in world views grows, ag policy will move more and more to the front lines. With it will come an increase in political maneuvering and posturing.