Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

U.S. agriculture will fall behind Brazil, Argentina, Buffett says

Conference lures 300 from around the globe

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Howard Buffet gestures while taking questions from the after lunch crowd at the Convention Center Tuesday.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Howard Buffet gestures while taking questions from the after lunch crowd at the Convention Center Tuesday. Photo Store

The sixth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture attracted more than 300 people from 40 countries to Winnipeg this week.

It's not clear how many of them came to hear the presentation from Howard Buffett, the philanthropist/farmer/photographer son of the famous multibillionaire Warren Buffett.

But many of them probably went away with some comfort knowing someone with such brand power was on their side.

With a personal net worth estimated at around $200 million, Howard Buffett farms about 1,500 acres near Decatur, Ill. His main public platform is likely through the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which bills itself as a "private family foundation working to improve the standard of living and quality of life for the world's most impoverished and marginalized populations."

His presence at the conference was as someone from powerful corporate America who can speak his mind without fear of corporate interests.

'In the U.S., we can afford to make mistakes and our kids don't go hungry'

Among other things, he says farmers in countries with generous agricultural subsidies -- such as the U.S. and Europe -- are less likely to adapt to environmentally sustainable farming practices.

"In the U.S., we can afford to make mistakes and our kids don't go hungry," he said. "We can afford to over-fertilize and pay the bills and still get by."

He believes other countries such as Brazil and Argentina and maybe Canada (although he admitted he was not very knowledgable about what goes on here) will surpass the U.S. in some agricultural practices.

In addition to the luxury of subsidies in the U.S. he said, "We have a mindset that has kept us trapped" -- farming the same way previous generations did.

While Buffett's message might have bolstered some in the audience, his connection to corporate America might not be as detached as advertised.

He has been an executive and board member of companies such as Archer Daniels Midland and ConAgra and has been a board member of Coca-Cola for many years (two bottles of Coke sat prominently on the stage during his conversation with Charlene Frick, vice-president editorial of Farm Journal).

He said his foundation's work in agricultural projects in Africa makes him think the range of challenges means a range of solutions -- including some provided by corporate America -- will probably make the most sense.

"It can't be all or nothing," he said. "There has to be a balance or we're all going to lose."

He said that means there will be places where genetically modified seeds from Monsanto (one of the sponsors of the conference) will be most successful and other places where a whole other strategy will be the best.

He said he believes the agricultural lobby is losing power in the U.S. and at the same time is not happy with the pace of change in agricultural practices.

"The stakes are high," he said.

He said his experience in the corporate board rooms of America gave him solace that the important realities will not be ignored.

"Farmers have to listen to what consumers are saying," he said. "We have to explain why we do what we do and communicate it in a way that people understand."

He said, "You can't go run and hide. I've learned this on corporate boards. The day is over when you can bury your head and stand up and say nothing to shareholders and get away with it. The consumers are our shareholders."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2014 B6

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