Just in case you missed President Bush's State of the Union address in late January, and you wanted to know what he had to say about agriculture, that's it. No, this isn't a summary or the high points. This is, verbatim, the extent of his remarks on U.S. farm policy — three words.
Most of his eagerly anticipated speech focused on the war on terrorism, domestic security and the U.S. economy — all equally important topics. But the President's only mention of agriculture or the farm bill came at the top of a short list of “other issues” he hoped to work with Congress on in the months ahead.
That agriculture would warrant such scant mention in the President's most important speech to date isn't surprising. It might even have been expected, and herein lies the problem.
This shouldn't be interpreted as a personal attack on President Bush. His attitude towards U.S. agriculture isn't unusual or shocking. It is, in fact, the norm in Washington, D.C.
Even though farm income is expected to drop by an estimated 20 percent this year, with most growers entering their fourth or fifth year of an economic depression, the priority legislation on Capitol Hill in 2002 was an economic stimulus bill designed to help pull the non-farm economy out of a recession that isn't yet 24 months old.
And, when considering the ramifications of international terrorism on domestic security, most politicians are oblivious to the potential role of agriculture. Agriculture simply isn't seen as an issue of national security, and we'll all pay dearly one day for this costly oversight.
Just as it took the collapse of the Twin Towers to convince us of our vulnerability to terrorist attacks, it'll take something just as horrendous to convince most Americans of the importance of agriculture to national security. Perhaps a sustained food shortage would do the trick, with prices for common grocery items such as a loaf of bread reaching levels that would be out of reach for many Americans.
While it certainly shouldn't make us feel any better about the situation, it might be helpful to know that this declining “national status” of agriculture isn't unique to the United States. A similar scenario “across the pond” might provide some clue as to the future direction of U.S. farm policy.
In Great Britain, for example, farmers currently are facing the most radical changes to their livelihoods in more than 50 years, after being told that farming has become “unsustainable.”
In its report to Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Policy Commission on Farming and Food said that farming “is serving nobody well,” and suggested fundamental changes in the way that it is subsidized. Environmental groups in Great Britain welcomed much of the report as a “blueprint for more sustainable farming,” while the National Farmers' Union predictably rejected its core proposal.
The president of the National Farmers' Union expressed “total opposition” to moving European subsidies from production-based payments to supporting environmental measures. The farmers' union in Scotland was even more damning, calling the report “naive” and “simplistic.”
The report's main recommendation — that at least 10 percent of European Union farming payments be redirected from production-based subsidies to benefit the environment and pay for rural development — has enraged the majority of farmers in the region.
“It equates to taking away cash that farmers simply do not have,” says Ben Gill, president of the United Kingdom farmers' union. “With the industry in its current dire state, it's hardly surprising that we oppose suggestions of taking money from farmers in this way.”
Among other things, the report also calls for more organic farming and a reduction in pesticide use.
Prince Charles has welcomed the report, saying, “If there is a silver lining to the horror of the last few months, it is that it has make people realize just how beautiful the countryside is.”
A more realistic and less idealistic response came from the president of the Country Landowners Association who said, “There is so much in the report that is good, but it is a bit romantic to believe that somehow if you do all these green things, the market will somehow reward you. I'm not sure that is going to happen.”
In reviewing the situation in Great Britain, where agriculture apparently has achieved secondary status, one has to wonder - are we far behind?