NGO panel in D.C. discusses value and veracity of agricultural data

By: John Gifford, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

A panel of non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders spoke to ASU’s sustainable food systems graduate students during a May 2022 food-policy immersion experience in Washington, DC. Included among this panel were Ferd Hoefner, Michael Fernandez, Ann Mills, and Doug O’Brien.

Ferd Hoefner is a Washington, DC-based consultant working on behalf of multiple organizations with interests in federal farm, food, and environmental policy. His background includes over 30 years as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s policy director and lead Washington representative. Additionally, Ferd is a senior fellow with Arizona State University’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems. 

Dr. Michael Fernandez is the founding director for the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (AAAS EPI Center). His experience in science policy and public affairs includes leadership positions in private industry as well as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Pesticides, Prevention, and Toxic Substances, and at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Marketing Service. Michael has also served as senior director of global public policy at Mars, Incorporated, and executive director at the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

Ann Mills is Executive Director of the Agua Fund, a private foundation based in Washington, DC. The Fund’s mission is to improve quality of life by supporting work to protect the natural environment, and to help the poor, disadvantaged, and underserved. Ann has had a distinguished career in conservation, focusing on water and collaborative partnerships to achieve measurable environmental results. From 2009-2017, she was Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources & Environment at the US Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, and has held senior leadership positions, including Senior Vice President for Regions, Executive Vice President, and Vice President for Conservation, with American Rivers.

Doug O’Brien is President and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA) where he works with the cooperative community, both domestically and internationally, to deepen its impact on individuals and communities. Prior to joining NCBA CLUSA, Doug led the work of the White House Rural Council and served in top positions at the US Department of Agriculture Rural Development. Doug has also worked in the United States Senate and House of Representatives, and for two US governors. 

Discussion topics ranged from the power of networking to foreign ownership of US farm- and ranch lands, and even the accuracy of USDA’s self-reported data. 

Responding to a question about the accuracy of self-reported data, Dr. Fernandez mentioned a reliance on the scientific process. “I take a body of scientific evidence and distill it down,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that could keep me up at night. The biggest fall from grace would be telling people something untrue, something that doesn’t reflect scientific evidence. It’s a challenge. We have to ask ourselves if we’re talking to enough of the right people.”

Dr. Fernandez added that part of this is building networks and having enough of the right people—funders, for example—together in the same room to challenge and hold each other accountable. 

Ferd Hoefner explained that if one is using data, the most important consideration is to understand what its limitations are. 

“When I was a lowly congressional intern in the 1970s, there was a big bipartisan brew ha-ha over foreign ownership of US farmland,” Mr. Hoefner said. “Ever since then, every year the USDA collects data on foreign ownership. But it’s all self reported, so the data is not really worth very much. But the report comes out every single year since 1978. Pendulum swings in Washington tend to operate on a six or eight year cycle. It took a long time to swing but here we are in 2022 and I don’t think Congress has said a word about foreign ownership of US farmland since 1978, until last year. And now, suddenly, it’s a hot issue again.”

What about Farm Service Agency data? Is it reliable? Mr. Hoefner believes it is “pretty good because they’re not going to get their payments if they don’t report.” 

Along with FSA, the Risk Management Agency also collects farmer data. The Natural Resource Conservation Service has its own way of collecting such information. 

“Those three data sets, which are the most intense the USDA has outside of NASS,” explained Hoefner, “do not talk to each other.” 

Ann Mills commented that there is an entire movement focused on establishing ecosystem service markets that rely on being able to accurately measure, verify, quantity, and monetize improvements in soil health and carbon sequestration, for example. “I think the incentive is there to get the data right if people and businesses are buying credits for specific environmental outcomes,” she said.

This requires high-quality data in the form of scientific evidence, something Dr. Michael Fernandez and the organization he leads, the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues, wants policy makers to value so they can better understand how it can help their decision-making process.

“Federal agencies have access to all the scientific data they need, which is much less true at the state and local level,” he said. This is a major reason why the AAAS EPI Center is so heavily focused on the state and local level. Dr. Fernandez said his organization tries to bring together policy makers, scientists, and other influencers as a way to generate information and foster peer-to-peer learning. 

“State legislators and municipal leaders, as much as they like to hear from us, they also enjoy hearing from one another,” Dr. Fernandez said.   

So do graduate students studying sustainable food systems, whose questions for the presenters helped shine a brighter light on the vast and complex issues facing food policy leaders today.    

This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.