Commentary: In Defense of Food Security (Dave Ladd, President of RDL & Associates)

As media reports abound regarding the inability of the United States House of Representatives to pass a comprehensive five-year farm bill, it appears that the paradigm for passage of such legislation could soon become a thing of the past.

The most recent proposal by the Republican leadership to salvage a farm bill from the carnage of the failed floor vote a few weeks ago would split the farm bill and nutrition provisions into two separate bills.

Whether or not the House GOP can garner enough votes for such a maneuver remains to be seen.  Even if they are successful, the issue of reconciling the disparate House bills with the Senate’s version would mean an interesting conference committee – to say the least.  And then there is the question if both chambers would have the votes to pass a “reconstructed” farm bill.

But these political maneuvering bely a more substantive question; the role of agriculture within the national security construct, and the continued viability of the urban – rural coalition that has been the linchpin of farm bills since the early 1970s.

Throughout history the need for an abundant, reliable and affordable food supply has been at the heart of social and political stability as governments continue to recognize food security as a national security priority.  The challenges of feeding a growing world population on a fixed land base, as well as well as increasing competition for water and other natural resources, will have significant ramifications for food security – both domestically and abroad.

These factors point to a credible case for preservation of the urban – rural coalition that has been instrumental in ensuring a safe and affordable domestic food supply for American consumers – as well as the coalition’s unsung contributions to political stability.

The recent failure by the United States House of Representatives to pass a comprehensive five-year farm bill in a bipartisan fashion has called into question both the political and policy paradigms which have been in place for the past 40 years.  The polarization that was prevalent during House consideration of the 2013 farm bill casts doubt upon agriculture and nutrition spending going forward.

This brings to the forefront two essential issues: the economic impact of agriculture and the strength of political coalitions.  Both hinge upon the willingness of the American taxpayer to make continued investments on their own behalf via Federal, state, and local governments.

It is worth noting that the economic impact of agriculture on the economy of the United States goes beyond the production and marketing of traditional commodities.  It also includes the retail and foodservice industries which are utilized by consumers in accessing their food supply.

Without question, the U.S. food and fiber system as a whole remains one of the nation’s largest economic sub sectors.  Food distribution, a sub sector that includes transportation and foodservice – as well as wholesaling and retail – adds significantly to the total value of food and fiber products.

The consumer is a critical part of the equation in regards to agriculture’s impact on the overall economy.  Americans spend billions on food via retail grocery outlets and foodservice establishments.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, in 2011 Americans spent over $654 billion for home consumption (e.g. food stores, home delivery/mail order, farmers, manufacturers and wholesalers).  The American consumer spent an additional $641 billion away from home (e.g. eating and drinking establishments, hotels/motels, schools and colleges).

The role played by modern agriculture in the economy, the shifting demographics of rural America, the decline in rural population, and the advancing age of producers have made the formation of coalitions increasingly critical for agriculture and related stakeholders.  These shifts have changed the way coalitions are developed and maintained, bringing about partnerships that are urban and rural, as well as regionally by commodity.

Since 1973, farm bills have passed Congress is due to the broad support created by urban and rural coalitions.  Farm state members of Congress have leveraged votes on issues such as minimum wage or consumer protection – viewed to be critical to urban constituencies – in return for support of agriculture legislation.  To make farm bills more palatable to a broader constituency, domestic food programs such as food stamps and food aid have become an integral part of the agriculture budget.

The strength of this coalition buckled during House consideration of the 2013 Farm Bill due to a philosophical divide, partisan pressures the desire to need to reduce federal outlays.  This was due, in large measure, to members of Congress and stakeholders who advocate for domestic food programs being unwilling to accept reductions to outlays for nutrition programs that were in proportion to those under consideration for program commodities.

Coalitions are also regional and oriented toward specific commodities.  Southern members of Congress who represent cotton, rice, peanuts and tobacco have often leveraged votes for their commodities of interest with Midwestern and Northern members who represent corn, wheat, and soybeans.

However, regional and commodity-based coalitions have also been stressed during consideration of the 2013 Farm Bill.  Reductions to commodity payment mechanisms that disproportionately impact cotton and rice will be met by resistance from Southern members of Congress, who have joined forces to ensure that these commodities continue to receive support.

Although the makeup of Congress is increasingly urban in nature, agriculture continues to have a handful of options politically.  In the United States Senate (a chamber that functions by unanimous consent), every senator represents agriculture and rural interests, regardless of the size of the state or the types of commodities produced.  In addition, the rules and precedents of the United States Senate afford the minority the right to protect and advance commodity provisions and funding for agriculture programs that otherwise might not achieve broad majority support.

It is in the House of Representatives where the dynamic has changed – at least for the foreseeable future.   Because members in the House of Representatives must seek re-election every two years, those who represent rural districts having traditionally been reluctant to stray too far from their constituency.  With the rise of third-party expenditures, there are new players on the field.

Leading up to, and during consideration of, the 2013 Farm Bill in the House, conservative groups pressured Republicans representing agricultural districts with radio ad campaigns to oppose the five-year $940-billion bill, calling the proposed $20.5 billion reduction in spending for nutrition programs too little.  Conversely, Democrats, whose districts mostly encompass urban areas home to food-stamp recipients, refused to budge on cuts they considered too deep. Each party was fearful of angering their core base of support.

As Congress seeks as path forward on the 2013 Farm Bill valid arguments will once again be made as to the sector’s importance to the economy, the shifting demographics of rural America, an aging producer base, and the necessity of government involvement in agriculture.

These arguments will come face-to-face with the desire to achieve budgetary savings.  What must not be lost in the ensuing debate is the need for an abundant, reliable and affordable food supply as a means toward ensuring political stability and domestic food security.

Dave Ladd, President of RDL & Associates, is a frequent guest commentator regarding public policy and the political environment and is a co-author of the book, “LIKE: Seven Rules and 10 Simple Steps for Social Media in Your Campaign”.  His company, RDL & Associates, assists clients in achieving their legislative and policy objectives via strategic communications, message development and interaction with elected officials and their staff.

Copyright © 2013 RDL & Associates, LLC.  All rights reserved.

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