WASHINGTON, April 9, 2014 - Agriculture – whose proponents have long argued the industry has a public image problem – tried a different tack this week. At a Capitol Hill summit attended by lobbyists, congressional staffers and industry members, a number of sector participants argued there’s a profound link between agriculture, food and human health – and Congress needs to start paying attention.

The summit, hosted by the National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research and supported by agriculture groups like the American Seed Trade Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, brought together policy, private industry and government officials for a wide-ranging three-hour program. The biggest question on participants’ minds: Why isn’t there more money for agriculture research? And how can we get more Americans to pay attention?

“We should not make agriculture the punching bag,” said Senator Mike Johanns, R-Neb., a former U.S. agriculture secretary who opened the proceedings. “Those involved in agriculture should be concerned with advancing human health and wellness through agriculture.”

“We don’t make the connection enough between nutrition and agriculture,” said Isabel Walls, senior adviser on food safety, nutrition and health in USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist, who also spoke at the event. Walls pointed out that many of USDA’s most important research projects – those, for example, dealing with pollinator health and antimicrobial resistance in livestock – are intertwined with human health.

Though “you can’t mandate that big government is going to make you eat this or that,” Walls argued USDA research and outreach can play a major role in improving the country’s nutritional health.  But funds for research are hard to come by, panelists said.

According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, less than 1 percent of 2014 Farm Bill outlays will be dedicated to agriculture research – about $1.2 billion.  Some 80 percent of the total $489 billion is dedicated to nutrition. 

“Why is it that the Pentagon gets almost every research dollar that they want?” asked Dan Glickman, a former agriculture secretary and current co-chair at Agree, a public policy group focused on agriculture.  Glickman said that while the majority of 2014 Farm Bill funding is slated for nutritional programs (including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), few congressional hearings are dedicated to nutrition. Indeed, of the six hearings held on the farm bill in Washington in 2012, only one was dedicated to specialty crops and the nutrition title.

The biggest challenge to lack of funding is Congress, Glickman said. “They can’t continue their leave of absence.”

Moving Congress, however, is tricky business - and one that involves the even trickier business of moving public opinion. Other speakers suggested agricultural issues do have support from surprising sectors – like public health. “You would be amazed,” said Anne Haddix, a consultant with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Whenever we do a farm bill seminar, the room is packed.”

Though there are challenges to break the barriers between sectors, including, as Haddix pointed out, public health officials don’t often come from the land grant universities where many agriculture professionals are educated. Still, many participants at the Capitol Hill event hoped the summit would begin a wide-ranging dialog among lawmakers, government officials and industry.

Gregory Page, executive board chairman at Cargill, said consumers were drawing more and more information from the Internet, which has few fact-checkers. And while “millennials” – Americans born after 1980, who grew up on the web – are showing more of an interest in food, agriculture is not sufficiently getting its story across, Page said.

Page said Cargill is experimenting with QR codes, product labels that can be scanned by a smartphone to automatically take consumers to a web page with more information on the product. Once tech-savvy consumers get to those webpages, though, Page said his researchers have found that Cargill doesn’t have a lot of time to get its message across – “about 12 seconds,” he said.

Shifting public opinion could mean forming sometimes-contentious relationships, Page said, noting that Cargill has reached out to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a food industry watchdog, to promote causes like agriculture research.

“We all have to vow to go out and build some of the relationships that will at first cause some friction,” he said.


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