Dan Glickman hasn’t left Washington, even though his last public service office as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during the Clinton administration (1995-2001) ended in 2001. Glickman has since served as CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America and at several Washington think tanks. He is co-chair of AGree, a recently formed initiative backed by nine of the world’s leading non-profit foundations. Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley asked him about the initiative’s goal and his perspective on current ag issues.

Cooley walt polo
Editor and Podcast Host / Progressive Dairy

Q: What is AGree’s mission?

A: GLICKMAN: AGree is a new initiative, and it’s designed to transform long-term agriculture, food and rural policy. It’s not geared to the short term.

We’re not specifically lobbying for this Farm Bill, per se, but we’re geared to looking at all aspects of food, agriculture and rural policy, including trade, diets, nutrition, health issues, rural development and research. We’re both globally and domestically focused.

The interesting thing about us is that we’re a collaborative initiative of nine of the world’s leading non-profit foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates, the Ford, the Rockefeller, the David & Lucile Packard, the McKnight, the Robert Wood Johnson, the Walton Family, the William and Flora Hewlett, and W.K. Kellogg Foundations.


It’s really the first time the large foundations have gotten involved directly in food and agriculture policy.

Q: What are the on-the-ground activities people can associate with AGree?

A: GLICKMAN: We’re in the process of getting those in motion, but we’ve formed an advisory committee of people from different disciplines who advise us on a variety of aspects of domestic and global agriculture issues. We’ve also formed a research committee of distinguished scientists to advise us on the kinds of research that either we ought to be doing or we ought to be recommending others to do.

This year we will probably begin having more formal stakeholder meetings with various portions of the agriculture, food and nutrition world to talk about important issues.

The whole idea here is we recognize the interconnected nature of agriculture policy, both domestically and globally. That requires us to break down the traditional silos, the borders that we’ve heretofore had in food and agriculture policy, and work across issue areas to forge a foundation by which transformational policy can be made.

I served for years on the House Agriculture Committee (1977-1995) and what I found was that anybody not involved in agriculture was traditionally not welcomed into the debate, but what’s happened in recent years is that food and agriculture policy have become a lot more important globally.

Food shortages and food price spikes have had a lot to do with political instability in the rest of the world. We’re facing a period of great weather variability, and climate change issues involve agriculture, so these issues have reached a point where they are as important as energy policy, health policy and other national security issues.

We’re trying to see if we can pull together and reach some common ground about the challenges we’re going to be facing over the longer term.

Q: How much common ground do you really have among all your members?

A: GLICKMAN: Well, there’s no question we’ve got common ground in terms of defining what are the challenges.

By the year 2050, the world’s population will increase to somewhere around 9 to 9.5 billion people, and most of that is occurring in developing countries. There’s great common ground in recognizing that we’re going to have to grow and raise a lot more food to feed those people. It just can’t be done in the current situation; we don’t have the capacity to do it.

So we’ve got to find ways to do it without destroying our environment because there are limited amounts of water and land available to grow that food. There’s also common ground in the fact that we’re going to have growing middle classes around the world, and that’s going to create consumer demand for goods and services, and that’s going to increase energy consumption and shift patterns of food consumption.

There’s not absolute common ground on the role of technology in all of this; we know we’re going to need to use technologies, but there have been some differences in which new technologies to use (such as genetic engineering and commercial fertilizers), how fast to use them and whether there are alternatives to these, such as the debate between organic versus non-organic products. I think we can have both classes.

There’s also concern about the structure of agriculture – more and more of agriculture is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. I think we’re going to talk about whether that’s a trend that is immutable or if it even needs to be turned around.

We know that to grow food for a hungry world, we’re not going to have 100 percent small, older farms; that’s just not going to happen. The question is what we can do to encourage small-scale agriculture where feasible. These are some of the issues we’re going to be exploring as time goes on.

Q: What do you see as some of the long-term challenges or opportunities that would affect the dairy industry specifically?

A: GLICKMAN: First, people’s diets are changing worldwide. Most of the growth in the world is occurring outside the U.S. People want to eat better; their incomes are going up, particularly in places like China, India, Indonesia, even in sub-Saharan Africa.

One of those things we want to do is to deal with the needs of producing more food, increasing production and doing it in a sustainable way. The dairy industry is very important because in many parts of the world they either don’t eat or consume enough dairy-related products, and it can be a big and important part of their diet.

Q: You will talk to dairy processors this month at their annual meeting. What will your message be to them?

A: GLICKMAN: I don’t think you can pull dairy processors out of the whole food chain – the production of dairy products is a big and important part of, not only our diet in this country, but also diets around the world. So we’ll be talking about some of the issues I’ve just mentioned, including the globalization of food.

But at the same time, there is a greater and greater consumer desire to purchase food locally, or closer to their home. The dairy industry will be very much involved in that.

Much of our dairy products are produced in large operations, and then transferred nationwide, but you’re starting to see more and more interest in products being grown and animals being raised closer to home. We’re going to talk about those two trends, which look like they might be competing, but I don’t think they have to be.

Dairy policy is extremely complicated. We’re not going to get into that too specifically, as part of AGree. We’re probably not going to engage in this year’s farm debate on what dairy policy will look like.

Q: How is small, local production versus large-scale, national production not at odds with each other?

A: GLICKMAN: Remember, the world of agriculture is like the world of non-agriculture. In this world of modern technology, social networking and new communications, we’re finding that consumers want to have much more control over what they buy.

Historically, agriculture has been very top-down, supply-oriented; what the producers and the processors wanted the consumers to consume was what was marketed. Essentially it was more of a supply situation than a demand situation.

What you’re finding, in almost every part of life today, but particularly in agriculture, is the consumer wants the product to meet his or her specifications. They want it fresh; they want it local; they want it altered to meet their taste or nutritional needs.

Dairy is also going to be part of that, in terms of all the products that are produced, which means there’s going to be greater and greater pressure, I think, for products to be manufactured more regionally.

I think you’re still going to have your large national processors, but I do think the demand for fresher products where the consumers can touch and feel and put some parameters on what they want – that’s going to be a bigger part of agriculture. That’s not something the government can do much about; it’s something the consumer is going to decide, and then the dairy industry will respond to it.

Q: Does supply management deserve any discussion in long-term agriculture policy?

A: GLICKMAN: Farmers are always their own worst enemy, and that is every kind of farmer. Times are good, demand is high, and production follows. Then there’s too much production, price falls and people question how to deal with that falling price, what the government’s role is and how to protect against risk in the future.

For a commodity like a dairy, which contains perishable products, it’s probably pretty hard to totally get out of the supply management world. This is my own personal opinion. However, the nature of the globalization of agriculture has made it so rigid supply management schemes just don’t seem to work as well as they used to.

My guess is that you’re not going to totally get rid of supply management, but it will not be thought of as vigorously as it once was, with the exception of self-help programs, where dairy farmers have always been able to band together and try to deal with supply management.

But the better, long-term answer, of course, is to look at demand, and figure out ways to augment the demand side and find alternative ways dairy products can be an essential part of our diets.

Q: What are some of the opportunities to help rural communities succeed economically?

A: GLICKMAN: The first thing is to make sure rural communities are part of the 21st century communications world, so broadband access and telecommunication hookups are just as good in rural communities as they are in concentrated population centers. That would mean people would find they don’t have to move to a bigger city.

So much of agriculture requires off-farm jobs to be sustainable, and the more you can have modern telecommunications, you can, in fact, keep those jobs closer to home on the farm.

That’s also related with respect to some of the education and health care issues in rural communities, where you’ve got to make sure there’s access to services requiring high levels of proficiency and professionalism. For big chunks of farm country and rural, small-town America, if they were hooked up to the modern world and had modern health care and education, then a lot more people would want to stay there.

Q: You have a unique background working with the Motion Picture Association of America and Hollywood. What did you learn from working with celebrities about their influence on food production and nutrition?

A: GLICKMAN: One of the things I would say is that Hollywood celebrities don’t know a lot about food and agriculture production. For example, I’m a big fan of organic food, and when I was at the Department of Agriculture, we facilitated getting the Organics Standards Act implemented. Organic is nice, and it satisfies a portion of the population, but it’s not going to feed the world.

I think there are some people in Hollywood that probably don’t know that. I used my job to try to be a bridge to the entertainment community to let them know that they’re very important in shaping messages, but sometimes they are not totally on target in terms of what all the issues are.

Q: What do you think are some of the toughest challenges in ag that current legislators and administrators have to deal with?

A: GLICKMAN: I’m glad I don’t have to administer milk pricing, which is one of the most complicated issues to administrate because you never make everybody happy, and, oftentimes, you don’t make anybody happy. And that’s not natural for a politician.

Historically, we’ve had cycles of partisanship. It’s just gotten much worse in recent years, and we do have to find a way to resolve more of our problems constructively rather than each party, each side, trying to kill each other all the time. It weakens America. It makes it so we can’t resolve a lot of our particular issues, and that’s a generic problem that affects just about everybody.

Agriculture policy, it turns out, is probably more bipartisan than most of today’s issues because ag issues tend not to be ideological. They tend to be more regional and geographic than they are left or right, liberal or conservative.

In fact, you find some of your most conservative legislators supporting some of the most interventionist farm policies, which in some circles would be called liberal. So agriculture policy tends to not be as bitter as some of the other policy areas are.

The final point, I would say, is that we spend so much time on what the farm programs look like, their payment structure, that we tend to neglect the longer-term issues. I think one of the things AGree is trying to do is get the country to focus more on what the world’s going to be like 20 or 25 years from now and how we get from here to there, rather than just what the next farm bill’s going to look like. PD


Walt Cooley