Tuesday, April 15, 2008

PR Problem 

Food prices are a PR problem for the agricultural industry. The rapid rise in costs stems from at least two sources -- the price of fuel and worldwide demand for better nutrition. Farmers are reaping profits now, but the moment may not last. Prices tend to be cyclical. For years, there had been almost no movement in the price of corn and soybeans, and many small farms went out of business.

The problem farmers face now is that the public will turn on them and accuse them of being greedy and of starving citizens. There isn't much truth to that, but there is at least one desired piece of legislation that is likely to take a hit -- the US farm bill with its crop subsidies. There is no eagerness in Congress to approve support payments when corn and soybeans are at historic highs.

There is a second problem farmers face that is more serious. There are so few of them left in developed societies that their political influence can be easily dampened by urban and suburban voters. If prices continue to rise, voters will choose their pocketbooks over those of the agricultural community. The Ag industry has had a strong voice in Congress for many decades, but in times like this, historic shifts can occur. Were I a farmer, I would be worried that the tide of public opinion might be turning against me, especially if I were a large operator planting thousands of acres at a time. The public doesn't understand -- and doesn't want to understand -- agri-business. Shoppers want affordable food. They don't want to know how it got to the store -- who grew it, who processed it, who transported it.

The Ag industry should be communicating frequently and urgently right now to the society at large, but that doesn't appear to be happening. The industry is too fragmented with too many competing interests. The PR problem for the industry will continue to grow until prices subside again. The political damage may be permanent, if society should conclude that it is being held hostage by Ag interests.

If I were a farmer in a small town, I'd call that aggravating reporter who always asks me about what the next crop will be like and why plants do this or that this days and tell them what's happening. Hopefully it'll be picked up by AP and then becomes a trend story.

This might be a dumb question, but is there a farmer's union? Maybe they could get a lobbyist???
Although they have unions, farmers are all independent, competing businesses - so they usually lack the sense of solidarity needed for collective action (unlike in France).

However, isn't the real PR challenge for the agri-business is to explain why food should be more expensive. It's amoral how little western consumers spend on food - saving a few dollars for consumer goods while they consume sub-standard food that triggers obesity and a plethora of modern illnesses.

In the long-run, this is a much more important battle, because subsidies can't be guaranteed forever (particularly as US farm subsidies have been ruled illegal the WTO).

As a separate issue - should farmers want to be well-kept pets? New Zealand farmers lost subsidies decades ago, and have gone on to become more successful than ever.

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