There are gradual but significant shifts occurring in the way agriculture is being conducted, regulated and in the way agricultural research is being funded. These shifts reflect broad political differences among elected leaders and within the public.
A stalwart conservative voice has emerged which demands more free enterprise and “less government,” which translates into fewer regulations and less funding for agricultural priorities at the federal level and in many states, along with steady or lower taxes on corporate enterprises and individual producers.
The roots of the conservative movement can be traced mainly to the Reagan presidential era. An 18 percent reduction of federal food safety inspectors this year due to the budget sequester can be attributed to this movement.
Simultaneously, a strident and emerging “liberal left” advocates for reduced commodity price supports but stronger governmental roles in environmental and producer health and safety protections and research.
The liberal movement is aligned with proponents of progressive taxation, organic and sustainable farming, and worker and consumer rights. The roots of this movement are sometimes labeled as “socialism,” and have antecedents in the eras of FDR and JFK.
Regardless of how one feels about the pros and cons of each movement, there are real changes in agriculture that have implications for all agricultural producers. This column is meant to inform readers about the ongoing changes and not to promote any particular political view. Readers’ thoughts are requested.
Many federally funded programs affecting agriculture are being cut back or eliminated. During recent meetings of the Regional Advisory Committee for the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health (See: www.public-health.uiowa.edu/GPCAH/) I learned all eleven regional and national centers for agricultural safety and health training and several other categories of grant-funded research are slated for elimination, along with a number of state-funded public health regulatory agencies.
For the past 24 years, many agricultural safety and health programs were part of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health budget, but they are not included in the budget proposals currently being considered by Congress. These programs have supported a substantial share of the research, faculty salaries and graduate student stipends at mostly university-based centers.
These programs contributed to significant strides in agricultural safety and health. For example, their research has established that 65 percent of agricultural-related fatalities are due to roll-overs of tractors, skid loaders and ATVs, almost always when the machines do not have roll bars or cabs for protection. In Scandinavian countries where these are mandated, operator deaths have almost been eliminated.
Another outcome over the past score of years is the development of programs to educate farm families about the dangers associated with farming and how to minimize them, resulting in significant reductions of fatalities of children and adults while engaged in farming.
Federal funds no longer make behavioral counseling available to curtail farm stress and farming-related suicides, both of which are serious problems in the agricultural community.
Changes are occurring on the state landscape as well. To illustrate, taking photographs of consolidated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) without permission from the owners has been banned in several states.
State regulatory officials cannot take on-site or aerial photos of CAFOs in restricted areas. Animal rights proponents claim CAFOs have something to hide, such as inhumane conditions for animals, while proponents of these measures assert certain photographers tell a false story about actual animal treatment.
What alternative funding sources are available for agricultural research, safety and health? With reduced federal and state funding, agricultural education and research institutions increasingly have to depend on private foundations, individuals and corporate entities for financial support.
Because most corporate and private entities have gains from their investments as their aim, it is not clear if they will support vital agricultural safety and health efforts.
Given their profit motive, will corporate and private entities pick up the financial slack to support the kinds of unbiased research and education needed to advance the safety and health of food, the environment and people?
Examples of topics that need to be scientifically evaluated include, but are not limited to, the following:
What are your thoughts about what needs to be done to improve the health and safety of agricultural producers, consumers, and the environment? What should be researched and who should pay for it? This column is a good forum to consider producers’ ideas.
Dr. Rosmann is a Harlan Iowa psychologist and farmer. Readers can contact Dr. Rosmann at the website www.agbehavioralhealth.com.
By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.