Four years ago next month, Farm Foundation released a report, The 30-Year Challenge: Agriculture’s Strategic Role in Feeding and Fueling a Growing World. That report identified the lack of a common strategic vision for the future of agriculture as an important barrier to development of the policies that the world’s agriculture producers and agribusinesses need to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050, while improving agriculture’s environmental performance.
Four years later, it doesn’t look like we have made much progress in moving toward that common vision. The debate about the future of agriculture seems to be an increasingly polarized battle between two competing visions: one of large, specialized farms driven by science and technology connected to consumers by global supply chains; the other of small diversified farms connected to consumers by local food networks.
On top of the increasingly shrill debate over these competing visions for agriculture, the high level of polarization and partisanship in our national politics has stalled even routine legislation. The 2008 Farm Bill has expired and the passage of its successor is not yet in sight. In this difficult political environment the decades-old coalition of farm, conservation and feeding program constituents that have supported “farm bills” for more than four decades appears to be crumbling.
In this situation I suppose I should find myself pessimistic and depressed; instead I find myself optimistic. Polarization, rancorous debate, no sign of common vision or consensus—we have been here before. For more than a decade following World War II that same situation characterized the debate over the future of agricultural policy. Some of the critics of the mechanization of U.S. agriculture were still fighting a rearguard action against the “tractorization” of agriculture. A partisan and highly ideological battle over agricultural policy was fought between the proponents of mandatory supply control and those who wanted to get the government out of agriculture by eliminating the New Deal farm programs. How did it all end?
Mechanization became uncontroversial and the tractor joined the barn as an icon of U.S. agriculture. The political battles over agricultural policy came to an end, with consensus around a middle ground of “safety net” commodity programs, combined with conservation and nutrition programs that have now endured for nearly 50 years.
How did the gridlock and shouting come to an end nearly 50 years ago? It came to an end as political and intellectual leaders from agriculture, including many from Land Grant universities, pushed those with strong values and beliefs to sit down, engage, find common ground and move ahead. While the specifics of some issues may be different today—biotech instead of mechanization—much of the landscape seems eerily similar to the 1950s, shaped by two enduring American tensions: one between agrarian romanticism and technological innovation, and the other between government intervention and the market.
Farm Foundation, along with other institutions, played a key role in bringing us closer to a common vision for the future a half a century ago, and we intend to play a strong role today. As an organization dedicated to bringing people together to seek common ground and as a non-advocacy provider of objective information and analysis, we want to encourage a rich and exciting discussion about the future of agriculture. It is in that spirit that we are launching AgChallenge2050 as part of our Dialogue Project. Our goal is to bring a diverse group of thought leaders to the discussion. Our hope is that through these discussions, common ground can be identified on which to build for the future. We look forward to hearing your voice in the conversation.