Last week, while some farmers finally got the dry weather they needed to plant and others were fighting floods along the Mississippi, The Washington Post held a conference on “The Future of Food” at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Britain’s Prince Charles was the keynoter.
Despite the broad title, the focus of the conference was organic farming, which represents an important market, but a small slice of agriculture in the U.S. Only Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, added as a speaker at the last minute, was there to represent mainstream agriculture. Some speakers who advocated an ultra-organic approach seemed to favor tearing down traditional agriculture and starting over with fully organic model. They attempted to make the case that only food grown organically is safe and healthful. I don’t buy it, and I don’t think most Americans will either. But these folks would like to drive the discussion on food and agriculture policy, and they have certainly caught the ear of the media, which is broadcasting their message,
In the past, I’ve been critical of Secretary Vilsack when he’s said to proponents of differing agricultural practices, “Why can’t we all just get along?” But he repeated that message at this meeting, and he’s right.
Prince Charles said he wanted to “produce the healthiest food possible from the healthiest environment possible for the long term. And to ensure that it is affordable for ordinary consumers.” I agree. American farmers are doing just that—and we’ll be doing more of it.
We need to make sure that our customers here and abroad understand that there is no way that organic farming alone can produce the food we need today to feed nearly 7 billion people, much less the food we will need to feed 2 billion more in 2050. More importantly, antibiotics, biotechnology, fertilizer and pesticides are not the enemy; science has demonstrated that they are safe and effective when used appropriately. They boost production, keep food costs lower and enable farmers to make a living.
It’s important for those of us who actually produce food and are committed to conserving the land to make a strong case for traditional agriculture. We need to make sure that every one of our customers understands the commitment of conventional American farmers to maximizing production, minimizing environmental impact and ensuring sustainability. Some in the natural food movement would assert that they alone are concerned about these matters. But U.S. producers can and must demonstrate their own concern, because we have a far greater stake in this discussion.
Everyone needs a place at the table—those who want to grow crops organically and those who have chosen a conventional approach. The future of food really does matter—to all of us. Farmers need to be aware that more interest groups are pressing to influence farm policy, and they are attracting attention. As we approach the next farm bill, don’t let someone else take your place at the table—make your views known.
About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.
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