Interview: Dan Glickman

Prior to his service as U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1995 to 2001, Dan Glickman represented Kansas’ 4th Congressional District in the House of Representatives for 18 years. He also served on the House Agriculture Committee – including six years as chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over federal farm policy issues.

After more than two decades of public service, Glickman was chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America from 2004 to 2010. In 2010, he served as president of Refugees International, where he worked to compel world leaders to provide clean water, food, health care, and other basic assistance to people displaced by conflict.

Currently, Glickman is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program, vice-chair of the World Food Program USA, and co-chair of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Agricultural Development Initiative. He serves on the boards of directors for several other organizations, including the Food Research and Action Center; the National 4-H Council; the Farm Foundation; and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

In 2011, Glickman became co-chair of AGree, a global initiative launched by nine of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the McKnight Foundation; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; the Walton Family Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. AGree’s mission is to drive positive change in the food and agriculture system by challenging leaders from diverse communities to make food and agriculture a national priority.

glickman AGree

Dan Glickman speaks at the launch of AGree, May 3, 2011. Photo courtesy of Agree

Craig Collins: When AGree was created in 2011, it was described as an “agricultural think tank.” Is that an accurate description?  

Dan Glickman: I think it’s part think tank, part advocacy organization, and part what I’d call a convener – a venue where we bring a variety of interests together to explore the future of food and agriculture policy and to make recommendations for the future. Sometimes think tanks hold conferences and then don’t do much with their discussion. AGree aims to be the reverse. We have an advisory group of diverse food and agriculture interests and we meet with outside stakeholders, and our goal is to actually come up with recommendations for government policy and private-sector practices as they affect food and agriculture.

AGree is unique, I think. While some of the foundations had focused on parts of the food and agriculture area in the past, this is the first time that a large and important group of the major U.S. foundations has decided to target food and agriculture as a long-term priority. They’ve been involved in all sorts of things – education, transportation, poverty – but now they’ve chosen to focus the discussion on food and agriculture. Some of these foundations are new players in this game. Traditionally, the people who talk about these issues are people I would see when I was on the Agriculture Committee in the House, or when I was at USDA. They were people with farm interests, largely.

This is a different model, with newer people, and it’s exciting because – generally speaking – food and agriculture policy tends to be written with a very short-term, narrow perspective. It has not involved the people in other sectors – in the health sector, the environment sector, the energy sector, the national security sector – so one of our goals is to try to elevate food and agriculture issues to a much larger platform.

How does AGree intend to broaden the discussion to include these other groups?

I’ve obviously been involved in agriculture policy for a long time, and I still am. And in agriculture policy, it’s very easy to get into a pigeon-holed, turf-based discussion depending upon what you’re interested in. In food and agriculture policy, it almost invariably gets into the issue of what farm subsidies should look like. I think the debate needs to go far beyond that, and that’s why I like what AGree is doing. I still engage in discussions about farm subsidy programs, but they’re not going to answer the big-picture questions about food and agriculture policy.

At AGree, we focus on four interrelated challenges that face the food and agriculture system:

First, meeting the future demand for food, particularly with the demographics of the world changing in terms of population growth and income growth.

Another challenge is the effort to conserve water, soil, and habitat. How do we produce that food sustainably and protect our environment, particularly at a time of volatile weather and climate changes?

No. 3 is improving nutrition and public health. Although food stamps and federal nutrition programs are a big part of farm policy to date, these issues don’t get as much attention from the agricultural production side as they should.

And then the fourth challenge is our rural development portfolio. How do we strengthen rural communities, improve farm life and rural livelihoods to keep a strong rural sector going?

People tend to look at these challenges in pieces, and we’re trying to look at them holistically, as part of the bigger picture. Food and agriculture are very interconnected globally, but there are a lot of barriers between these issues. So we try to foster a unique kind of discourse, where we work across these lines and turf barriers.

What are some things about the food and agriculture system that you think are ripe for change? 

We’re probably going to have more specific policy recommendations later on next year, but we do know that we’re going to have to produce more food for a growing world, and do it sustainably. We’ve got to figure out a way to get essentially more bang for the buck – produce more food, but do it without impacting water supply or quality. Water resources is a threshold issue for agriculture, because agriculture uses about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water. How are we going to feed 10 billion people with that limited water supply – and without ripping up fragile soils and forests? That’s obviously a big issue.

Another big issue, both at home and abroad, is nutrition and public health. What can we do to educate people – both those who need federal assistance programs like food stamps, and those who don’t – about the obesity epidemic? How do we get them to improve their diet? Chronic disease is as much affected by what people eat as any other factor, possibly more so.

We also need to take a close, rational look at the whole issue of immigration and creating a stable, legal food and agriculture workforce, because agricultural producers, particularly fruit and vegetable growers, are extremely dependent upon labor for their production. And we have a very shaky system now, with respect to securing an adequate number of people in that business. Many of the workers are undocumented, and many of them aren’t treated very well. So that’s an area that we want to look at closely. Our recommendations will probably become part of the broader immigration debate over the next two years.

We’d like also to attract younger people to food and agriculture. I happen to believe agriculture is a good business – and it’s also a growth business, and will be for a long time to come, largely because it’s becoming more profitable. We want to find ways to encourage more young people to get into this business.

We’re also looking at the agricultural research agenda of our country, to see if there are ways to make it more relevant to the future of agriculture and the problems we’re facing.

The food and agriculture policy-making process seems to have stalled in Congress during the 2012 election year. Was 2012 an unusually bad year, or do you think agricultural policy and budgeting are becoming more contentious and complicated? 

The process isn’t all that complicated, to be honest with you. It’s only complicated by the political decisions that have to be made about how much we want to spend on farm programs and how much we want to spend on food stamps. One of the big issues being debated this year is the level of funding for food stamps, which is a worrisome issue for those of us who support both farm programs and nutrition programs.

Traditionally, there has been a link or a partnership between farmers, farm groups, and producers of farm commodities and folks who have been involved in SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and other federal nutrition programs. That partnership has been, in a sense, a marriage of convenience, because the number of members of Congress from rural and farm areas is very small. The number of members of Congress from urban and suburban areas is much larger. So this political coalition between consumers and producers has really been the mainstay of the agriculture budget for maybe 40 or 50 years, but what’s happened in the last few years is that there’s been a big growth in the nutrition budget largely because the economy is not good, and more people are on federal assistance programs, including food stamps. And some people, particularly on the conservative side, would like to see those numbers cut. A lot of those same people are those that don’t want to see cuts in the farm support programs. That’s created a tension that we haven’t seen, certainly in my history in this debate.

So how to resolve it? I don’t know. The Senate wants to cut the SNAP and other federal assistance programs less than the House does. There’s also a debate about the level of federal support for commodities in the North and South. There are some particularly who represent southern commodities who feel that the bills that have been passed by the Senate, and reported out of the House, favor northern commodities. It’s a complicated matter, and very nuanced. But I think right now it’s been one of the underlying reasons why this bill has not been solved yet.

Both the Senate and the House versions of the Farm Bill put an end to direct payments to farmers. Do you think that provision is just a sign of the times, or is this the end of an era? 

I think farm programs are important, but in the future, as we move to a more sophisticated, risk-based approach, federal support programs are simply going to become less and less important. You’re going to see programs in conservation, and some programs in risk management, but the tradition of great amounts of federal money pouring into agriculture for farmers to grow crops – or to not grow crops – I think those days are coming to an end.

At AGree, one of the things we want to look at is: What is the future of food and agriculture going to look like? What issues are out there, beyond just what’s going to happen to farm and commodity programs?

It’s really important for agriculture that more than just rural America is interested in what happens in the production of food. This is a national issue – a national security issue, a health issue, an environmental issue, and an economic issue. And with our engagement at AGree, we can highlight these issues and demonstrate their importance to our national agenda.

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