Farm Food Facts

Is There An Urban/Rural Divide Around The Environment?

June 23, 2020 USFRA Episode 82
Farm Food Facts
Is There An Urban/Rural Divide Around The Environment?
Chapters
Farm Food Facts
Is There An Urban/Rural Divide Around The Environment?
Jun 23, 2020 Episode 82
USFRA

Robert Bonnie from Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions joins us today on Farm. Food. Facts. He discusses his research which answers the question: is an urban/rural divide around the environment, and if so, what is it?

Show Notes Transcript

Robert Bonnie from Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions joins us today on Farm. Food. Facts. He discusses his research which answers the question: is an urban/rural divide around the environment, and if so, what is it?

Phil:

Farm Food Facts. Where every farmer, every acre and every voice matter. Welcome to Farm Food Facts presented by the U S farmers and ranchers Alliance for Wednesday, June 24th, 2020. I'm your host Phil Lempert. In our news today we're going to talk about why rural matters and my guest, Robert Bonnie from the Nicholas School for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke university says it matters a lot. Robert, welcome to Farm Food Facts.

Robert:

Thanks for having me Phil.

Phil:

So first up, I guess my, my question is, tell me a bit about this study that you did, um, that really took in world voters, lands agencies and even the U S Senate.

Robert:

Yeah, so, um, I've, I've worked with rural constituencies, my entire career. I spent eight years at the us department of agriculture before that I worked for an environmental group, but I did all work with farmers and ranchers and forest owners. That's so I've always been interested in the way rural constituencies, rural people think about, uh, the environment they think about conservation, and I've always sort of experienced the fact that rural people care a lot about the environment at the same time.

Robert:

Any of those of us who Mmm. Um, no, these constituencies know they have concerns about federal policy around the environment and conservation. And so I wanted, when I got to Duke, I wanted to look at some of those issues and began a, a process of a series of interviews across the country with rural leaders and agriculture forestry, local government tribes, um, other areas, and then some polling and focus groups. And to really ask the question, is there an urban, rural divide around the environment? And if so, what is it?

Phil:

So as I'm looking at, um, the, the report, the slides, if you would, um, I am shocked at the first one that I'm looking at is when you ask the question, how important are environmental and conservation issues to you personally divide between the two groups and where you were you at all surprised to see how similar the numbers came out?

Robert:

You know, I was, I wasn't actually at the end surprised. And part of the reason was just because I spent a lot of hours in focus groups in front of that, talking to rural folks. As I mentioned, I always knew when you talked to folks in rural America, they, they feel very strongly about clean water, clean air, open space, wildlife, all those things. And, um, and when we got into focus groups, we would begin the focus group, just asking people what it meant to live in rural parts of the country and unprompted from us, they would start waxing about the importance of all those things about the environment and conservation. And so when we actually got to the pole and started asking people, I thought, you know, I, wasn't going to be surprised if X rural might actually be a little bit higher, but the truth is they're almost exactly the same. And if you correct for political party, there's no difference between urban and suburban voters and rural voters. Everybody cares about the environment.

Phil:

So what's, what's the next step, um, by, by taking this survey, taking all these interviews that you did, um, getting it out there so that, you know, we can change the perception that the two groups are way apart on the environment. When in fact, as you said, they're really very close.

Robert:

Yeah. And that's ultimately why we did the work. You know, we found that a real area of concern for rural voters and for the stakeholder leaders we talked to in the focus groups was the impact of federal policy and concern about the way federal policy presents it to itself, um, in the context of, of rural lands in particular. And so, Mmm,

Robert:

I think part of our rationale for doing this was both, how do we understand rural voters better? Because they are so important to the environment they're critical in not only managing lands, but they, they, uh, even in places where you have federal lands, those rural communities that are embedded in those plans are really important as to how those lands are managed. And so our hope was if we could get this information and share it with people, maybe folks would understand rural better. Maybe we start a conversation. Um, maybe we could break down this urban, rural divide we see. And on the policy side, maybe we could think about, we could learn about some things that might help us actually build policy that both works for rural and accomplishes our environmental and conservation Oh, goals. And so, you know, what we've tried to do with the study is shared broadly. We've shared it with policymakers on Capitol Hill. We've shared it in the environmental community. We've shared it with folks in agriculture and forestry. And it will say one of the important intendant audiences here are people that work for environmental groups and conservation groups. Cause I think, um, there are a number of those folks that see the challenges they're having in rural communities and want to figure out a better way. And so that's an important audience for us justice folks in agriculture and forestry and in port audience too.

Phil:

So I want to take a quote, um, from the report, um, and I'd like to understand it a bit through your lens and what it really means. Um, and this is an agriculture stakeholder leader in North Dakota, who said, I'm going to sit here and tell you that the climate is very different than it was when my dad was farming the ground. But farmers are almost Hesitant to say that because they're afraid of the policy consequences. Once everybody admits it, explain that to me.

Robert:

There it is right here, here is a farmer that's very close to the land. He, he sees what's what's happening to land. He sees, uh, he sees climate change. Mmm. But I think he like a lot of his, uh, uh, friends, neighbors, colleagues worry about what the implications of climate policy are going to be. And wow, my view is that a lot of folks in rural have a prison that they look through either they've had direct experience with environmental laws or they've, or they've heard about them, and it's not altogether a pleasant experience for a lot of folks in that. So I think that prison colors the way they think about, okay, if we do things on, on the environment, um, or we do things on climate change, maybe that's not going to be, I'm concerned that maybe that's not going to be great for agriculture or forestry or other rural land uses.

Robert:

And I think part of our, um, interest here is in peeling back the onion a little bit and figuring out, okay, those are concerns. How do we build policy that actually works for world? And that accomplishes the environmental goal as well. And I think our report points in some directions to make that happen. So share with me what are those directions and what are the stumbling blocks. So I think, I think, you know, there's a, one is a sense that there are a lot of folks in rural. They're not sure they're being listened to. And so drawing Mmm. Uh, agriculture, forestry, other folks into the policy making process. Yeah. Providing transparency, providing them a voice I think is, um, is, is really, really important. The other thing I think is, um, okay, folks are, tend to be more comfortable with state and local government and they do with federal government.

Robert:

Are there ways to design federal policy, maybe where it's more of a partnership, a partnership with States, a partnership with, uh, local government people were very interested in collaborative approaches. There was a recognition amongst rural voters that regulations are important. And they, there was, there was no one that would say, Oh, we need to get rid of all regulation, but there was a sense maybe there wasn't the tool of choice always. And, uh, and I think there's some ways we could think about designing approaches for agriculture, particularly on the climate change. It's going to be about incentives. It's going to be about a Marcus. It's going to be about empowering farmers to, to continue to stewardship. They're already doing same thing on the forestry side and looking for ways that we can enhance that. And so I think if we're, if we're able to, uh, make change about both investing in rural investing in agriculture and forestry in a way that's going to benefit those rural communities at the same time that we're responsive to climate change.

Robert:

I think that's a much more, uh, that's a much healthier, um, uh, debate to have. And I, and so I think, I think there's a place to go again. There's going to be a place, um, for, for, uh, for regulation and environmental policy. I actually think for most, most of the rural landowners farmers, ranchers forest owners in particular regulation, actually, isn't going to work particularly well. And what we really need to think about is incentives, collaboration, locally driven, uh, uh, Oh, approaches that, that give farmers ranchers, forest owners control over their own destiny, allows them to make decisions, allows them to, um, just sort of build on their stewardship ethic.

Phil:

I think what you're saying is, is dead on because what I'm hearing from farmers consistently is a, and this is even pre COVID-19 that, you know, the federal bailouts, if you would, they don't really want a check. They see that as a bandaid approach that sure. It'll get them through, uh, you know, another season, but they're really looking for exactly what you're talking about, having a seat at the table, having those incentives so that they can build a viable business if you would, that that could be passed on, is that what you're hearing as well?

Robert:

Yeah. And there's, there's some, there's some really good news when you think about actually what, um, uh, what can work for agriculture, what can work for forestry and what actually works for climate? It's not that it's, cost-free, these things are gonna take some resources and it takes some investment. Mmm. But there's a lot of alignment. There's a lot of alignment with improved productivity. Turns out productivity is really important. We were going to need farmers to be more productive at the same time that we figure out ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon. Um, and so there's alignment there, there, and by the way, there are a bunch of conservation practices that reduce greenhouse gases, and they also make farms more resilient to extreme weather, drought, flooding all of that stuff. And so they're, again, there's a place to go here and, um, and we can build solutions that actually work for agriculture, but agriculture, in order to trust those solutions going to need to be at the table.

Speaker 2:

Same, thing's true in, in, um, in forestry. So I'm actually quite optimistic, a little bit need to get beyond the polarizing rhetoric that that has. Um, [inaudible] we see a lot in, in climate, uh, debates, um, and, and w was interesting, cause we saw a lot of rural voters that are, that, um, put off a little bit around the polarizing rhetoric on both sides. And if we haven't, if we have a conversation, that's about that alignment that I talked about and that's about solutions that actually work for agriculture and forestry, we can, we can actually do some things here that I think would be beneficial to everybody.

Phil:

Do you think, and obviously you did this work pre COVID-19. Um, do you think that things are gonna change as a result of it that either the farms themselves have to change, uh, physically, uh, because of the way the workers have to work and that's going to impact, um, if you, if you did this poll, you know, in, in two months, from now three months from now, you might get different answers.

Robert:

I think, I think largely we get the same answers. I think you're right, that, that, you know, we don't know what the post COVID world looks like right now. We do know that agriculture in a lot of places is suffering. And your point earlier about, you know, farmers want to sell product. And [inaudible] one of the most important products they sell in addition to food and fiber is they sell a lot of environmental benefits. And right now they provide a lot of those benefits for free clean water Habitat,

Robert:

Uh, all kinds of things. And, and, um, and we need to figure out ways, are there ways that we can, uh, improve the incentives, whether through some market-based or just pure incentives, where we partner with agriculture, we partner with forestry to provide, um, to provide those benefits all the while growing the food and fiber that, that a growing society needs. I think one thing that's clear about COVID, it's changed the conversation in Washington DC, considerably to think about economic recovery and stimulus agriculture was already hurting in places pre COVID Cohen's made it worse. And so I think part of the conversation around the environment and conservation is how do we achieve some of our environmental and conservation goals while also being attuned to the fact that agriculture's going to need the same type of recovery resources that other parts of the economy need as well.

Phil:

And do you think that's going to happen?

Robert:

So I actually think that there is, I actually do think that there's an opportunity in the short term, the type of things you're seeing come out of Washington are rightfully focused on unemployment, on health, on resolving the, you know, the immediacy of the crisis right now. I think there will come a time when, Uh, Washington takes a bit of a broader, uh, a look at these types of policies. And I think For those People that are interested in the climate policy, I think clearly economic recovery jobs are going to matter a lot. And we know that agriculture, again, some real challenges right now has already seen some action and stimulus. The question is whether you could kind of bring those two together in a way that that accomplishes multiple goals. And from agricultural standpoint, again, to your point, there may be an opportunity to sort of creates some more rewards for many of the things agriculture's can produce to create a sort of market for those environmental benefits that can benefit agriculture and benefit forestry. And at the same time, maybe provide jobs and economic development.

Phil:

So, you know, it, it, it's an interesting discussion that when people talk about climate change, and if I, if I look at what's going on in the supermarket right now, matter of fact, uh, with COVID-19 with some of the shortages of, of meat in particular, um, there's, there's this heated discussion that, you know, um, animal protein is not good for the climate. Um, and then there's other people on the other side, you know, that are saying, Nope, the animal animals are fine. They're not really affecting anything. Did you, in your, in your poll, in your focus groups here, any of those discussions and what can you share?

Robert:

Yeah, we, we asked, we did a poll in, and some focus focus group and a poll in the upper Midwest. And we asked people what their views are on the relationship of agriculture to climate change, both the ability with the causes of climate change, as well as what can agriculture do to reduce, um, uh, greenhouse gas emissions. Um, the public, the rural public at large sees a stronger connection on the forestry side than it does on the agriculture side. And even things like methane related to livestock, the public doesn't quite, hasn't quite picked up on those issues as as much yet. Um, I mean, I think climate policy writ large, if what we're trying to sell to the American public is scarcity, right? You're less meat, less, right? That's not a particularly good place for climate policy to be. And if you look in the United States meat production in the United States, dairy production is way more efficient from a greenhouse gas standpoint than it does in other parts of the country. And if you look, for example, the dairy industry dairy has been fairly forward-leaning on climate and working with its producers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve crop, land management, improved use of energy, capturing methane to produce power. So I think there's a lot of things we can do with livestock agriculture to reduce greenhouse gases and actually create some opportunities for those producers to make money from again, methane, digesters, or other, other, other types of approaches. And frankly from a, from a purely political standpoint, I'm not sure, um, Uh, you know, having an argument about meat consumption is a particularly great place for, for any of us to be. And I think there's a lot of things we can do ahead of that to reduce the greenhouse gas impacts of, of livestock at the same time that we actually provide some, some economic benefits to parts of agriculture, which are suffering right now.

Phil:

Well, Robert, this, this study is fascinating, um, and congratulations on it. Great job. And thank you for joining us today on farm food facts.

Robert:

Great to be with you.

Phil:

Thanks for listening to today's podcast episode. For more information on all things, food and agriculture, please visit us@usfarmersandranchers.org. Also be sure to look for us on Facebook at us farmers and ranchers or on Twitter at USF RA until next time.