Big Ag Creates Alliance

Group Seeks to Tamp Down Food Vs. Energy Debate

Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:43pm

Correction Appended

Four of the biggest names in U.S. agriculture will roll out today a multimillion-dollar effort to urge Congress to grow the amount spent on international aid for crop and food programs.

ADM, John Deere & Co., DuPont and Monsanto Co. have formed the Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy. The pro-ethanol Renewable Fuels Association will be a nonvoting, ex-officio member.

While much of the recent debate has been focused on food versus fuel, the group’s newly appointed executive director, Mark Kornblau, and representatives from all four companies say the alliance will take a big-picture approach to solving world hunger and the increased demand for fuel.

“There was a desire on the part of all four of these companies, these founding members, to try to raise the discussion that’s going on in public policy circles about meeting food and fuel needs,” said Kornblau, a former chief counselor to then-presidential candidate ex-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and a one-time communications director for Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). “They represent the entire agriculture value chain from planted seed to harvest to processing to market. There is an incredible wealth of untapped potential in agriculture to meet the food and energy needs that are growing around the globe.”

Kornblau declined to discuss details of the alliance’s budget but said it comes with a multimillion-dollar price tag. Much of that cash will go toward issue advertisements that begin today in inside-the-Beltway publications such as Roll Call. But the campaign will go nationwide and might include television and radio spots, he said.

“Members of Congress shouldn’t be surprised to see the alliance working through advertising or public outreach efforts in their districts or their states,” Kornblau said.

The group’s Web site, foodandenergy.org, also will go live today.

“We’re certainly excited about what we see coming that’s going to help agriculture and food production,” said Jim Borel, group vice president with DuPont. “By working together we think we can more effectively get the message out.”

The alliance will lobby Congress for increased funding for USAID efforts that fund farming programs in developing regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Brazil. It will also encourage Congress to support research to develop crop technologies. And it will push for policies to accelerate new cellulosic biofuels.

Kornblau said that if modern farming practices were in place in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the corn yield alone could increase by as much as 400 percent.

“It starts with seeds,” he said. “There are seeds that are drought-resistant and able to withstand blight.” He said Monsanto and DuPont work on seed technology. John Deere’s products help boost crop productivity with precision planting equipment, he added.

“We should also be helping in parts of the developing world, making sure there are actually roads leading from the farms to the city centers where these crops are actually sold,” Kornblau said. “That means infrastructure.”

One of the groups on the frontline of the food versus fuel issue has been the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has launched an aggressive campaign saying corn-based ethanol carries much of the blame for the rising cost of food. GMA’s Scott Faber said his association supports increases in federal funding for global agriculture development. The United States, he said, has “largely abandoned the investments that we made in the 1970s and ’80s in global agriculture development, and the entire globe has paid a price for that.”

Still, Faber said, any investments that Congress makes today will not produce results for decades, and as a result he doesn’t see an end to the conflict between food and fuel. “And while we wait, millions of people will be pushed into deeper poverty because we are diverting more and more of food and feed supplies to fuel supplies,” he said.

J.B. Penn, chief economist at Deere & Co., said the alliance companies are also putting their own money into research and development.

“We’re practicing what we preach,” he said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about food versus fuel … Rather than proclaim a crisis, we thought that we should look toward some of the solutions including investment in research, infrastructure and improved public policy across much of the developing world.”

The alliance has no plans to hire additional staff or outside K Street consultants, Kornblau said. Instead, he will coordinate the existing lobbyists of each member company. “We’ll all be working together to try to shape the discussion and have a real impact on Capitol Hill,” he said.

Correction: May 8, 2008

The article misidentified the name of the alliance involving ADM, John Deere & Co., DuPont and Monsanto Co. It is the Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy.