Every year, the Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development (AIARD) holds an annual meeting in Washington, D.C. around this time of year. As a professional society, made up of individuals from all aspects of the international agriculture and development scene, AIARD’s meetings are always wonderful for gaining inspiration, and being reminded of the reasons we as development practitioners are doing the work we do. This year, the meeting focused on innovation in international agriculture and rural development, and speakers discussed all types of innovative approaches for building collaborations, addressing issues in ICT, extension and reaching farmers, achieving immediate food sovereignty by providing surplus U.S. seeds to individuals abroad and employing agroecology, involving graduate students and other future leaders in development, etc. This is the third year I have attended the conference (my first time presenting!), and per usual, I am left with so many thoughts, ideas, and motivation. But, perhaps because of my recent involvement in policy with the Entomological Society of America, this year’s meeting really enforced the idea of how important it is to become involved in the policymaking process.
We all know that U.S. government funding is tight for everything these days, and that funding for much of the agriculture and international work we do fluctuates based on who is in whichever office. There is no need to emphasize that point. But, what is worth emphasizing is how important it is to engage with policymakers, regardless of the relevance to our own specific funding streams. For example, Emmy Simmons of AGree, a food and agricultural policy think tank, mentioned during her talk that no U.S. congressional hearings took place regarding policy related to the production of corn for biofuel. The impact of using agricultural lands for producing biofuel is entirely dependent on specific situations, but seeing as corn is such an important food crop globally, and important to the U.S. economy as well, a hearing related to its use as a biofuel seems warranted. These congressional hearings are incredibly important for informing congresspeople, senators, and others regarding contemporary issues, and often times play an important role in shaping how policy is developed. Too, they often come about due to the amount of coverage an issue is getting in the media, or because policymakers have heard that an issue is important to their constituents. As such, one can see how the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” mantra becomes relevant here. Speaking to your policymakers about food, agriculture, and development issues at least puts these issues on their radar, and may encourage them to seek out more information (through hearings or otherwise), and eventually vote in a way that could help us continue to do the work that we do.
With that said, one of the keynote speakers at the conference, Dr. Gebisa Ejeta mentioned that many working in the field of international agriculture and development have become focused on “careerism rather than altruism.” It is super important to remember that the work we do is based in the notion that all people deserve to live happy and healthy lives, and any engagement we do have with policymakers should be rooted in that idea. Policymakers want to hear from their constituents about the issues that we find significant, but relating these issues to what makes us happy and excited and motivated in life is so much more important than discussing how it keeps us employed (have I told you lately about how instrumental 4-H was in my own development, and how much I love to hear about similar youth programs?!? Let’s keep programs for rural youth on the radar!). So, in thinking about how instrumental it is to engage with the higher ups in the policy realm, I leave you with a few suggestions:
- Talk to your congressional representatives and your senators. Send them letters, sign up for their newsletters so you know when they are in town or nearby, schedule a visit if you are in D.C., etc. I’m not advocating for any specific area in this case, I just think we all need to take better advantage of the opportunity to speak to these people on any topic (and, btw, it’s super fun, too).
- Engage with other people and policy in other ways. There are so many wonderful outlets for keeping abreast of important issues (e.g. Agree, Politico, Foreign Policy, etc., even Twitter is good for this). And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of using science communication outlets, etc. as tools for advocacy and outreach.
- Involve yourself in professional societies, and especially in the outreach, advocacy, and policy related committees and efforts (Within reason. This can be an area you can get sucked in to quite easily, obviously). All three of the professional societies of which I am a member, AIARD, ESA, and the Ecological Society of America, have some sort of policy activities, generally with info on how to get involved on their websites. At the very least, it is worth it to become familiar with the stance of your professional societies on specific issues.
And now I will go forth and resume writing my dissertation so I can continue to do the work that I love, and which I find so incredibly rewarding and important! Also, as a comment re: the title, I won best tweet at the meeting for my excitement about meeting Sonny Ramaswamy and Gebisa Ejeta!
I didn’t take many pictures this year, but here are a few, at least!