May 14, 2009
Globalization of agriculture production and food will likely mean more regulations on producers and suppliers, said Robert G.F. Spitze, professor emeritus of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois.
"Where national boundaries and oceans once separated us, we are now in a world-wide market," said Spitze as he discussed significant changes in public agricultural policy over the last three-quarters of a century and then glanced at the potential future. "This means our food supply can originate from any field or processor on our planet.
"Carelessness at one peanut manufacturer, as we've seen, began affecting the whole world almost immediately. A problem in one location can have immediate impacts world-wide."
These interconnections focus attention on quality and safety assurance.
"We may well see increasing public control by human decision-makers over almost every detail of food production, marketing and distribution," he said. "Why? Because mistakes in any of these systems can have a devastating impact on health and safety.
"Some farmers and distributors are resisting this, but what happens when a whole crop of apples is wiped out or a herd of prize livestock is wiped out because they didn't have these protections?"
Born and raised in rural Arkansas, Spitze has a unique perspective on agricultural policy with on-farm experience combined with a multi-decade career as a distinguished agricultural economist.
"I can remember as a child looking out the window one morning and seeing a neighbor driving his herd of dairy cows down the road to town," he said. "They were collected in town, slaughtered, burned, and buried because they couldn't afford to feed them and there was no one to buy them."
Spitze remembers the day in 1939 when, for the first time, electricity came to his family's farm and being able to study by adequate lights.
"What an experience that was, and it was made possible by public agricultural policy," he said, referring to the New Deal Rural Electrification Act.
Broadly defined by Spitze, public agricultural policy can be traced back to the creation of public schools in frontier communities, setting aside public lands in every township to the mid-nineteenth century landmarks that created land-grant universities, agricultural research, and the experiment station system.
"In our public policy history today, I'd say there are five broad areas of vivid change," he noted. "The first involves the gradual broadening of what was once 'farm' policy to a diverse array of activities that treat problems of rural America-the environment, conservation, trade, education, and rural health and development.
"Because of this, the term 'farm bill' is a misnomer today."
Secondly, as the scope of agricultural policy has expanded, so has the seating at the table around which it is made.
"Today, there are all types of participants because nearly every group has an interest in the results of agricultural policy," he explained. "From the Farm Bureau to the League of Women Voters, many groups have a stake in the outcome.'
Third among the sweeping changes is the sophistication of the information available to decision-makers. And that is welcome, he added, if wise policy is to be made.
"Today's USDA budget, for example, covers so much more than simply farming," he said. "In fact, those segments probably account for less than one-third of the budget. The other things deal with total land use, food, and the system for feeding Americans."
Americans, who once either lived on farms or were only a generation removed, today have no contact with farming. This contributes to the suffering of the current recession, he noted.
A fourth area of change is the globalization of the food system, which he described earlier.
"Finally, there continues to be a reduction in the number of farms in the United States but an increasing size of the remaining farms," he noted. "That is a tremendous change over the past century."
On the other hand, some things have not changed.
"First and foremost, agricultural and food policy is still important," he said. "People are more concerned about it today than they have ever been. The importance of the food supply translates into the importance of public policy, no matter how urbanized we get."
The basic process for making that policy is basically unchanged from the early days of the republic.
"It begins when someone says this or that is a problem and decides to do something about it. They begin talking to people, then interest groups, and soon it evolves into the policy-making process, complete with hearings, research, disagreements, and compromise. Public agricultural policy will always be the result of compromise," he said.
"That's how our democratic system works. People resolve their differences by give-and-take. Some dismiss this as 'trading' promises. But what else is there to resolve real differences-a dictatorship? Democracy is always about the process of reconciling differences."
Research, extension and communications continue to be constants in agricultural policy as both the process and the delivery of policy rely upon these supporting factors.
"Finally, at the end of the day, agricultural policy must deal with problems about production, prices, and income," he said. "Regardless of new concerns like the environment or climate, policy will always end up with compromises about these three economic issues."
The future may well see an increasing importance for food and agricultural policy.
"We will see increasing human control over the food system," he said. "The changes will occur because what happens on the farm or in the food distribution system eventually affects many others. Individual freedom will yield to the right of fellow consumers because whatever we put on the land or in our livestock eventually end up on the plate of another person."
The quality of the end product will emerge as a major concern, as will the impact of production on the environment.
"We'll have a change of public policy relating to the actions of individuals through the entire system to a level we've never seen before," he said. "The public interest is larger than that of any individual if it is determined through democratic decisions."
If that seems far-fetched, Spitze responds with recent history.
"Five years ago, who would have predicted democratic governments around the world would be taking over the major banks?" he said.
Globalization, the potential for impact on people thousands of miles away from a single decision in a farmer's field or processing plant, will lead to a willingness to involve government "to do the things we can't do for ourselves," he said.
As the world comes closer together through a globalized food system, Spitze believes there will be a similar rise in what might be termed global consciousness and international types of controls.
"We are so interwoven, so interdependent, that we need democratic government-type policies at the international level," he said. "The days of unfettered kingdoms and nationalism are passing and yielding to broader public interests arising from democratic processes. Agricultural and food policy will be one of the driving factors in this change.
"Food and health are too important to be left to the unregulated private indulgences of men and nations. It is up to interested, informed citizens to help decide the desired combination of public and private policies."
In essence, Spitze is describing a world with freedom from want for basic human needs, freedom from fear.
"That's what I fought for in World War II," he said.