Breaking bad ag habits this year

From the high, clear-view perch of the new year, certain facts and events of 2006 are already visible.
For example, farmers and ranchers already know that the low-price marks for all 2005 crops and livestock are behind them and the high-price marks of 2006 for cattle, hogs, corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, rice, diesel, natural gas, anhydrous – whatever – lie ahead.
What are these prices and when will they appear? No one knows. Everyone, however, knows they are coming and, thus, all need to seek information that will help identify these prices and times and be ready to take advantage of them.
The view from the new year also includes other drifts that demand to be addressed before food producers march too deeply into 2006.
It’s not a science. At the top of my list is the selective, and oftentimes intentional, misuse of “science” by farm and political leaders.
If science, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and corporately-tied producers repeatedly claim, suggests that an expensive, national animal identification program will benefit American meat producers in global markets and ensure the safety of our domestic food supply, why then are the well-known benefits of country-of-origin labeling – food safety, marketing power – also not enacted?
The answer lies in another science – math. Producers will be nicked the $5 to $10 per head for a national ID program that will largely benefit meatpackers, and meatpackers will be nicked to pay for a country-of-origin program that will largely benefit producers.
The simple solution to this standoff is compromise. Enact both programs in 2006 and, as the meatpackers and USDA are fond of noting, let the market – science – choose the victor or, as is likely, victors.
A breeze. Likewise, can 2006 please be the beginning of the end of the incessant discourse on how vital World Trade Organization talks will be on the 2007 farm bill?
Study after recent study – the World Bank, Tufts University, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the German Marshall Fund – all have downgraded earlier, pie-in-the-sky predictions that a global trade deal would create an economic updraft the likes not seen since the Industrial Revolution.
Closer examination, however, now shows Doha’s impact to be more on the order of a small, satisfying breeze than a stiff, prolonged wind: 0.1 percent to 0.4 percent growth in global gross domestic product.
As such, Doha more resembles white noise for 2007 farm bill negotiations than the powerful white knight the White House claims it to be.
Essays from Congress. Indeed, as Congressional aggies wade into farm-bill talks this year, all should be required to first lock themselves in a room to write a single-page paper on the topic, “What America needs in food policy.” It must include, say, five firm components each rep or senator would fight for in a new farm bill.
And, no cribbing: Farm groups, lobbyists and agbiz CEOs cannot be contacted. This must be a personal statement on each elected official’s farm policy knowledge, hopes and ideas, rather than some consensus, gassy “backbone of the nation” nonsense that continues today’s government-sponsored takeover of agriculture by corporate integrators.
The exercise would likely have two immediate benefits.
First, it’s almost certain the aggies would shock themselves with their individual priorities: an increased emphasis on rural development; a new commitment to more – and more innovative – conservation programs; a slow, unwinding of today’s murderously high (and largely government underwritten) land prices; action to inject competition into market-insulated sectors such as grain processing, meatpacking and food retailing.
In short, today’s commodity-centered policies would give way to more people-centered policies. Trade and low-wage rural jobs, for example, would be challenged by high-end food production and high-tech careers.
The second result would be accountability. Farmers, ranchers and consumers would have a yardstick by which to measure their representatives’ interests, ideas and influence in strengthening rural America, while delivering cost-effective programs that ensure abundant, safe food to the nation.
Accountability. Indeed, accountability should be this year’s national watchword. Let’s reward the innovative, courageous and capable while disciplining – or de-electing – the deadbeat, corrupt and incapable.
After all, if 2006 is like 2005, they’ll be easy to spot.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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