Opportunity knocked

Oct 26, 2012

While there has been lots of discussion bantered back and forth about whether or not any of the recent presidential debates were game changers for voters, I have to wonder, if it’s not a possibility, why waste prime television time?

The first televised debate was in 1960 and the candidates focused on the issues, something our recent debates seem to have missed, instead focusing on events. By focusing on the events, several key topics were absent from the discussions.

Where were farming, agriculture or food discussion in the debates?

Agriculture generates $369 billion to the economy, employs 14 percent of the U.S. workforce, or about 21 million people, and contributes $108 billion to U.S. trade. Agriculture is one of the few U.S. business sectors to boast a trade surplus, exporting $132 billion in farm goods in 2011.

According to FarmPolicyFacts.org, more than 84 percent of farm bill-related spending goes to food and nutrition programs like food stamps, not to agriculture.

So back to the big question, why wasn’t the farm bill, ag, or the drought mentioned in the first debate? The farm bill seems to be on the “ignore it and it will go away” plan and ag discussions must be reserved for the Iowa caucuses.

The first presidential debate centered on domestic policy and the general health and well-being of the U.S. So what better topic, relating to domestic issues, is there than ag policy and a farm bill?

While President Obama did mention the Land Grant College initiative in the first debate, I have to wonder how many Americans even know what it is. Biofuels and nutrition were also topics of discussion that could have led into an agriculture-based discussion, but both candidates missed the opportunity to draw a much needed connection between the two and agriculture. But skipping agriculture is apparently not new.

“Ignoring agriculture and food policy in presidential debates is nothing new. Fewer and fewer people are actively, directly engaged in producing our food and fiber even though a significant number of people are involved in processing, marketing, and distribution, and everyone eats,” Robert Martin, senior policy advisor for Center for a Livable Future writes in his blog.

The second presidential debate covered a number of topics in 90 short minutes: jobs, gun control, immigration, women’s inequality, energy, taxes, etc.

But again, ag was missing. Surprisingly, genetically modified organisms didn’t even make the list in this town-hall style debate with voters asking the questions, nor did the hot topic of antibiotic resistance, or obesity—a topic very dear to Michelle Obama’s heart with her Healthy and Hunger Free Kids act.

On the farm bill topic—arguably one of the most important pieces of legislation on the table—not a word was spoken. Mitt Romney did mention food prices rising, which should have been another door opener for an ag discussion, but it ended there.

For the third debate, I have to confess, I missed most of it. I was in Vegas, in the midst of a savory all-you-can-eat prime rib dinner, and still have not been able to bring myself to watch the entire rerun.

But from what I’ve gathered, the key topic was foreign policy, and food security, aka agriculture, the industry that feeds the world, was sorely lacking from the discussion again.

Romney did take some of his closing remark time to clarify that he wants to get people off “stamps,” not by eliminating the program, but with job creation. From 2007 to 2011, enrollment in Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program increased 70 percent, to 46 million Americans per month at a cost of $78 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

So 90 minutes, times three, or four, if I add in the vice presidential debate, and I’ve come up empty on ag topics. Game changer or not, agriculture was the forgotten topic in the debates, and with several of the swing states having large rural populations, both candidates may very well have missed the chance to turn an issue into a game changing opportunity.

“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” - President Dwight D. Eisenhower. — TRACI EATHERTON