Dan Murphy: A New Farming Framework

Next year's election could have major implications for agriculture. ( FJ )

Farm support is crucial if the USA intends to maintain its ability to feed the American people and continue to export agricultural products. Here’s what needs to happen to build that support.

Here’s a brief observation, one that ought to concern everyone involved in animal agriculture.

Not in spite of, but because of, the current political turmoil currently embroiling the nation, there is likely to be a bitterly contested election campaign in 2020 — and not just in the presidential contest, but among the congressional candidates seeking election, as well.

That means a high likelihood of significant turnover among congressional representatives, since both incumbents and challengers deemed insufficiently conservative or progressive are more likely to find themselves on the losing end in a partisan election.

In other words, there may well be an even larger number of newly elected representatives, and even a few senators, than would normally be expected in a year when a presidential campaign tends turns out larger numbers of each party’s base, a trend that typically favors incumbents.

Plus, the Members of Congress who have announced their retirements are more numerous than usual. As of this week, 23 Republican representatives and four senators are retiring, along with seven Democratic representatives and one Democratic senator.

Those two trends are linked, of course, and together they virtually guarantee that in January 2021 the 117th Congress will be comprised of an unusually large number of newcomers to Washington politics.

Repositioning agriculture

Such a development brings with it the prospect of deeper, more prolonged partisan battles, but it also offers the opportunity to begin what needs to be a strong, protracted initiative to build support for American agriculture, and not just philosophically, although that’s where it needs to start, but in terms of policies and funding levels.

In an era of burgeoning federal debt, coupled with rampant anti-tax rhetoric, building support for maintaining, much less increasing, farm funding is an uphill battle. But that’s partly because the various farm bill programs have long been tagged by opponents as “subsidies” or “giveaways” to recipients portrayed as wealthy and often absentee farm operators getting rich on government largesse.

And yes — the programs involving price supports and commodity crop payments need to be carefully reviewed with an eye to reforming them in regard to agricultural diversity, minority participation and geographic equality.

That said, building support for agriculture starts with creating a framework that connects with policymakers on both sides of the aisle and with which representatives from both urban and rural districts and states can agree.

To do that is not so simple, but it is straightforward: Farm support — and that includes everything from research funding to conservation initiatives to land use policies to irrigation infrastructure to bio- and renewable energy investments — must be positioned as critical to national security.

Period. End of sentence.

Too often, politicians define “national security” in military terms, as if warfare is what makes us safe. Or they consider surveillance, domestically and globally, to be the linchpin of protecting the nation. Or they focus obsessively on law enforcement as the key to making sure the country is safe and secure.

All three of those areas are vitally important; no doubt.

Three critical variables

But what would happen if America ran out of food? Many people would consider such a prospect to be unthinkable, but we know what happens in other countries when civil war, drought or political unrest cause food shortages or even widespread famine.

It’s not pretty.

And even if such a development is far-fetched for the United States, what are the consequences of our nation becoming another Japan? A populous, prosperous country but one unable to feed its population and now dependent on massive food imports to sustain itself?

That’s not a scenario that’s impossible to imagine in this country.

Consider just three factors:

  • The shrinking base of prime farmland, as urban sprawl and commercial development permanently remove from agricultural productivity an estimated 10 acres every minute of the year. Without legislative action from both states and the federal government, available, arable farm acreage could drastically decrease in the decades to come.
  • The ongoing curtailment of public-sector research in crop and soil science, as well as biotech and on-farm energy development. Without strong support for basic and applied research to maintain and improve agricultural productivity, America’s ability to feed itself and continue to export farm products could be jeopardized.
  • The ever-emerging climate crisis. For those who still dispute the warning that the world is faced with potentially life-altering disruption of established patterns of temperature, precipitation and seasonal variations, look no further than the U.S Defense Department, which is investing billions in preparations for the impact climate change is likely to have on military operations.

And thus on national security, which brings us back to the premise of this column: Few elected officials are against measures that enhance national security, and even if they’re somehow “soft” on that issue, they’re unlikely to make a stand against commonsense policies designed to ensure the safety and security of the American people.

If food security — which is based on agricultural productivity, which rests on support for farmers and protections for critical land, water and energy resources — is woven into how we understand national security, if it’s fixed within the framework of government’s essential role in protecting the public’s health, welfare and safety, then I believe there is the potential to forge bipartisan support, both politically and monetarily, for maintaining American agriculture in its current state as the most productive in the world.

That status cannot be maintained by doing only the minimum or by merely replicating what’s been done in the past, because U.S. farming and animal agriculture is faced with long-term crises the likes of which have never before been encountered.

We can all sit back and hope the policymakers understand the gravity of the situation, or that the ag community makes it their priority to push the business of producing food and fiber toward the top of the list of national priorities.

Unfortunately, if the latter option isn’t chosen, or doesn’t succeed, we won’t have to wait for generations to experience the fallout. It’ll land in our laps before most of us go to our just rewards.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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