Industry perspectives on influencing the food system

By: Keith Arnold, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

Before my visit to our nation’s capital for our food policy course, my opinion regarding lobbyists, admittedly from an uninformed perspective, was of someone paid to push their company’s product or issue ahead of others. I didn’t know what it took to have a voice on Capitol Hill that carried weight to influence real change. However, this DC immersive trip was richly informative as our guest speakers were full of perspective, insight, rigor, intelligence, drive, and personality. Getting an industry insider perspective on discussions with policymakers was eye-opening. We were all thankful for their time and their invitation to join the cause to pursue change in the food system.

Chris Adamo of Danone, a company that owns household name brands such as Horizon Organic and Silk, has extensive executive and legislative branch experience. His recommendation to our cohort was to have an authentic voice when creating foundational relationships. Another one of his suggestions was to encourage the upcoming generation to join the Peace Corps to gain international experience in areas including sustainable agriculture. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can bring their experience back to Capitol Hill which can open the door to create more global awareness for our nation’s leaders. 

Matt Herrick, an experienced advocate with a background in communications, is a big supporter of letting good data and storytelling be an influential proponent in discussions. He emphasized that along with building and maintaining relationships (not just with the leaders, but media outlets too), it’s also important to leverage changes and preemptive discussions in policy to access the opportunity to influence change. Through the singularity of one input or with the combination with other influencing inputs, the use of surveys, social media, and science can be tools to educate policymakers. For example, Matt highlighted how the need for more agricultural workers crosses over with immigration policy, noting that in 2019 over half of all crop production workers in the United States were foreign-born and half of those same workers were undocumented1. Connecting the dots between these issues in policy stakeholder conversations can bring new perspectives and shed light on even more connections.

The third speaker we heard from was Karis Gutter, lead government relations person and head of their political action committee (PAC) for Corteva Agriscience, which split from DowDuPont in 2019. He explained the different types of PACs and what access (and lack of access) is available to those decision-making conversations. PACs provide an environment for building relations. Karis also stressed that knowing when to speak and to whom are vital as policy language may change given who is in control of legislation. Keeping relationships through the constant changes can help influence policy change at the appropriate time.

Gutter shared some current events and what he’s thinking on issues like the war in Ukraine and its impact on wheat production. He pointed out the USDA’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report and the fact that Russia is expected to be the world’s leading wheat exporter for 2022/23. He also spoke about the geopolitical issue: what good are sanctions to cripple Russia’s economy when 40% of the EU’s gasoline is supplied by the Kremlin2

Gutter mentioned a survey that showed that the American people want more sustainable products but don’t want to buy at a premium price. However, governments can support this transition by subsidizing such ventures as they do the other commodities now. 

Lobbyists or PACs provide direct representation and access to companies that might not otherwise have a seat at the table. Will these lobbyists and PACs be able to move a policy agenda toward a more sustainable food system that is also good for business? Time will tell, but without sound policy, both foreign and domestic, the success of our coalitions, lobbyists, and relationships will only go so far in leading our global food supply into a healthy and sustainable future for all. 

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.