New group aims to transform agriculture policyA recently formed advocacy group that aims to “transform” U.S. agriculture and food policy by the end of the decade recently named a 29-member advisory committee that draws heavily on the organic sector and environmental groups.

The Washington, D.C.-based group, AGree, launched in May, wants “to change the current inertia on agriculture issues by engaging a broad array of stakeholders to develop solutions,” according to a news release.

AGree’s specific goals aren’t yet clear. The group’s executive director, Deborah Atwood, said AGree has not established any proposed policy changes for the near-term. While AGree may offer to contribute to upcoming discussions over the 2012 farm bill, it’s more focused on long-term changes over the next eight years, she said.

The group “wants to remove the soapboxes and create a safe discussion space for stakeholders to air differences and have a voice to find solutions,” Atwood said in an e-mail. “We are starting with no predetermined outcomes and reject the ‘us versus them’ and ‘either-or’ classifications that currently divide food and ag policy debates.”

Atwood said her group is having extensive discussions with members of Congress, including the House and Senate agriculture committees, as well as with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials. She said she’s also had discussions with most major U.S. food processors and retailers. She declined to name any companies.

U.S. farm policy has been subject to criticism for years on a number of fronts, with some saying subsidies paid to farmers are too high. Many expect significant changes in the 2012 Farm Bill as Congress looks for ways to cut spending and rein in the budget deficit.

Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the United Fresh Produce Association, said AGree has an “impressive roster of members,” though it’s unclear just what specific policy changes it wants. United Fresh welcomes the chance to provide any input to the group, he said.

With negotiations over the 2012 farm bill approaching, it’s important the produce industry present a unified voice in the discussions, Gilmer said.

Representatives with the Produce Marketing Association and Western Growers Association said they weren’t involved with AGree and declined to comment.

AGree’s advisory committee members include A.G. Kawamura, former California agriculture secretary; Jeff Dlott, who runs California-based SureHarvest, which provides sustainability management software; and Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist with the Organic Center, Boulder, Colo.

Elizabeth Thompson, president of Environmental Defense Action Fund, and Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group are also on the committee.

Atwood’s previous jobs include legislative and regulatory affairs positions with the American Meat Institute and the National Pork Producers Council.

AGree, co-chaired by former agriculture secretary Dan Glickman, has “significant” funding for the next eight years from wealthy donors, including former Microsoft leader Bill Gates and Wal-Mart Stores’ founding family, the Waltons.