I can’t even begin to explain US agriculture policy other than to say ‘it’s complicated’. While US government officials seek to find balance between supporting farmers through crop insurance and various margin protection schemes compared to the enormous funding of their supplemental food assistance program, more previously known as Food Stamps.
In a country where bigger is better, extremism around consumption of goods and the confidence associated with being worldly experts on agriculture, the Farm Bill allocates a staggering $80 Billion to the food stamp program, in addition to the 35 million school aged children that participate in breakfast and lunch programs!
It’s not about malnutrition, but rather obesity and the issue of providing access to nutrious food. In a world where we have been challenged to feed globe, I think we need to make sure we feed our neighbours first!
But understanding how decisions are forged in the US, it’s the lobby groups which demonstrated their ability to influence and suede policy makers. Although we met with two general farm lobby groups, Farm Bureau and Farmers Union, they each spoke about needs represent farmers, however specific commodity groups are sure to present on Capital Hill.
Although only a brief meeting, Congressman Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican and Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, met our group and touched on decision making processes, forming policy and how the American farmers makes their voice heard in Washington. It’s not everyday that a Congressman takes the time to meet with folks like us, however through the power of Nuffield, we wre granted this access. In addition, meeting with Honorable Michael Scuse, Acting Deputy Secretary of Agrculture at USDA provided direct access into their priorities.
Travelling with a group of largely Australian farmers, we were hosted by their embassy where they assembled representatives from Ireland, New Zealand, Australia in addition to the first Canadian I’ve seen in five weeks, Mike Hawkins, an Agriculture Canada diplomat to speak about relationships and working with the US. Being the only Canadian, I have taken the heat on our protectionist approach to dairy and poultry, so it was nice to hear other countries have their sensitive products too. At the same time it provides context of our American partners to the south, as we are 10% the size in population and economic capacity. At the embassy, it would only be with a bit of Aussie humour that the reception hall was decorated in all things Donald and Hillary in making light of the upcoming election.
Additional speakers on borrowing money through the Farm Credit system and meeting with the Farm Journal Foundation and a lecture from former Kansas Senator Chris Steineger provided perhaps the most controversial conversation of the visit. Just because the constitution is steeped in history and written 200 years ago, does not make it right to never adapt or change a countries obsession with guns. The Senator tried to justify his point about how government should not interfere with people rights, thus the right to own firearms. Fortunately we had some Democratic balance in our terrific host, Jean Lonie with this conversation and her amazing organizational skills this week.
No visit to DC would be complete without the sites, sounds and some Washington culture. With our one free day and 30 Nuffield scholars on the loose, we hiked, biked and made our way to the White House, memorials, Arlington Cemetery and museums. Washington was a great few days to catch up with friends old and new!