John McCain and Barack Obama need to start talking farm policy. With less than a month before the November elections in a year marked by a world-wide food crisis, energy shortages, climate change, and an international credit crisis, agriculture should be a prominent issue in every media event.
Current farm policies are more about corporate agribusiness and globalization than local food production and shortening the food supply chain. While the farm vote may be viewed as insignificant, the importance of agriculture to the economy, or the food in one’s belly is quite significant. Many consider rural America “fly over” country, but the candidates need to verbalize their their plans to reshape U.S. agriculture.
“At the end of the day,” rising food prices and widespread food shortages alone, should make the case for paying more attention to agriculture. Bigger picture issues like water use, high fuel prices, and global warming should certainly bring the candidates to focus on rural America, often and in detail. Their simplistic statements that “bio-fuels are the solution” and “we will revitalize rural America” just don’t cut it.
Energy crops play prominently in the energy policies of both McCain and Obama, yet neither explain how we are supposed to simultaneously grow more food and more fuel. Neither explain why food prices are climbing while farmers cannot make a profit. Neither explain why, with the current high fuel prices the government continues to subsidize corporate oil.
The economic crisis and collapse of the credit industry are issues central to both candidates, but I have yet to hear either pay serious attention to the effect that tightening credit will have on farmers whose operations depend on credit.
While we have heard precious little discussion of farm policy, both candidates do have farm policies, but neither seem willing to bring them into open forum. Poking around in their websites one can find policy statements on all those “lesser issues,” agriculture, urban affairs, transportation, etc. Issues that are not always part of the stump speech, in spite of their importance.
McCain’s farm policy really never mentions food, local production, or the rural economy. He never mentions a living wage. His agriculture policy amounts to energy security (biofuels), deregulation (get the government out of farming — except to dole out subsidies), expanded property rights (more guns and more compliant judges?), increased agriculture exports (more free trade), increased use of new technology (more genetically engineered crops), and secured borders against those pesky migrant workers. Not much new there.
Obama has at least thought about food and farming in an era of declining oil. He specifically calls for more local, organic, and sustainable production, help for new young farmers, and strict regulation of the largest industrial farming operations — those that are the least efficient and the most environmentally damaging. Like McCain however, Obama seems to think that biofuels will save the farmer and life as we know it. Truth is, farming is not the answer to our energy problems, farmers can produce food efficiently, not energy.
While policy positions are just that, positions, not necessarily priorities or action plans, Obama has at least struck out new ground in his vision for the future of farming. McCain it seems, looked at the failed policies of the past several administrations and said, you betcha! That looks good.
We can’t expect food policies that have failed miserably to do anything other than fail again. Globalization, industrial farming, and high tech agriculture have not brought us into a golden age of agriculture, they have given us a food crisis. While Obama has fundamental flaws in his farm policy, he has at least, tried to move beyond the failed policies of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. As John Nichols noted, “it is fundamental that when a new administration takes charge we need new farm policies.” Come January, we must demand new policies and we must, by continued participation in our democracy, force that change.
As the campaigns mercifully draw to a close, both candidates need to get closer to rural America and talk openly to the heartland. They might be surprised to learn people do care about food and where and how it is produced. William Jennings Bryan once gave a speech while standing in a manure spreader. He lost, but what farmer wouldn’t remember a speech like that?
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