Former USDA chiefs predict rising consumer influence on agriculture
Consumers, not lawmakers and regulators, may drive the debate over water quality and good farm production, according to a former U.S. agriculture secretary visiting Iowa this week. “More and more, the general consumer, with the use of his or her smartphone and ability to communicate, is much more empowered on these issues than you used to see,” Dan Glickman, who ran the federal agriculture agency during the Clinton administration, said during recording earlier this week of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press.”
Glickman, 72, who was the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary from 1995 to 2001 after representing a Kansas congressional district for 18 years, said the public “often has views and thoughts that may not be necessarily consistent with production agriculture” and that’s likely where battles over water quality and the use of GMOs — genetically modified organisms — may be fought. “And that is why it’s good to see the seed sector and chemical sectors and the food industry beginning to respond to this by saying the public wants safe land, safe soil, cleaner water, those kinds of things,” Glickman said. “Those are factors that we didn’t see 20 and 30 and 40 years ago like we do today.”
Glickman, now executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program, and Mike Johanns, who headed the USDA for two years during the George W. Bush administration, predicted that science and technology also will change the debate. “What I see is you’ll have better science, better technology, better equipment, better everything because that has been the pace of agriculture,” said Johanns, a former Nebraska governor and one-term GOP senator who now serves on the board of the Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska as well as Deere & Co.
“I grew up on a dairy farm and I can tell you we planted corn with a four-row planter and (a) John Deere B (model tractor) and Dad would sight down the row,” said Johanns, 67, an Osage native. “You don’t do that anymore. It’s GPS. So when you look at U.S. agriculture, I do envision a day where we have the ability to say we’re just using our resources much more wisely.” Johanns and Glickman were in Des Moines for the Iowa Hunger Summit organized by the World Food Prize.
Not every farmer currently has the capacity to use GPS to adjust planting and the application of fertilizer, herbicides and fungicides to match soil and moisture conditions, Johanns said. “But that day will come.” Getting there will require expansion of broadband access into rural areas, and funding for agricultural research. “So there are a lot of things that are potentially available on the research side as long as public and private research dollars are adequately funded,” Glickman said.
Glickman thinks consumers will support that because “people do want to know what’s in their food, how it’s produced, where it’s produced, whether it’s safe, who grew it and all those kinds of things.” “That power of consumers is going to impact a lot more players in agriculture,” he said. In addition to farmers and ranchers, he said the medical profession may play a larger role in agriculture “because, after all, what you eat has a lot to do with how long you’re going to live.” “Iowa Press” can be seen at 7:30 p.m. Friday and noon Sunday on IPTV, at 8:30 a.m. Saturday on IPTV World and online at www.IPTV.org.