Commentary: Think tanks don’t really help ag

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Think tankers think they run the world, but I think they waste money with opinions generated by highfaluting know-it-alls not really accomplishing much of anything in the overall scheme of things.

There were 6,826 think tanks from 182 countries identified by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania and invited to participate in a listing and ranking of the most prestigious think tanks involved in public policy research and initiatives during 2012-2013.

Of course, the U.S. leads the world in think tanks with 1,828 of them identified by TTCSP. A far second is China with 426 think tanks. The United Kingdom and India are next in a close race of 287 and 268 respectively.

So, what are these thinkers thinking about or trying to tinker with? The TTCSP goes into this by classifying each think tank in areas of emphasis in a recently released 117-page report.

Here are the four high-level classifications of think tanking: Top Think Tanks in the World (with three subcategories), Top Think Tanks by Region (subcategories of 10 regions of the world), Top Think Tanks by Area of Research (there are 12 categories of research) and Top Think Tanks by Special Achievement (there are 22 achievements).

You might guess that think tanks focusing on agriculture would earn a subcategory somewhere in this listing process, but that isn’t the case. After reading about several of the think tanks, it is obvious that many of these think tanks take on projects related to agriculture and try to significantly impact public policy on ag in countries all over the world.

The closest I could find to focusing on agriculture was the subcategory of Top Environment Think Tanks. There were 70 of them in this subcategory.  The top 10 think tanks in this subcategory are as follows: 1. World Resources Institute (U.S.), 2. Stockholm Environment Institute (Sweden), 3. Worldwatch Institute (U.S.), 4. Brookings Institution (U.S), 5. Resource for the Future (U.S.), 6. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (U.S.), 7. Earthwatch Institute (U.S.), 8. Chatham House (UK), 9. Ecologic Institute (Germany), 10. Earth Institute (U.S.).

Some of these think tanks are familiar to some of us, but what do they accomplish or have they accomplished that supports U.S. agriculture and the environmental efforts of American farmers and the agricultural industry to feed much of the world?

I recognize some of the top 10 environmental think tanks as activist organizations that issue news releases opposing big farming and conventional farming. A bigger share of the environmental thinker organizations quietly do their thing, whatever that is. It makes me think of documents being handed off to politicians in back rooms out of the public’s sight—passing along reports similar to a CIA analysis of threats to the world’s security.

And then when I read about the money that these think tanks use to come up with their opinions, I became even more amazed. Those who want to think about the best way for all of us in the world to live should be doing it like the best non-profit organizations—spending only a few cents per dollar on overhead—in my opinion.  All totaled, it appears the savings of operating on a shoestring would free up billions of dollars to actually be used for transforming the world as a better place—rather than paying blowhards with high opinions of themselves penning opinions.

I was tipped off to the stupidity of having all these think tanks by a news release from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that ranked number 11 in the subcategory of Think Tanks to Watch. I guess being watched is a positive thing. This was reportedly the first time this think tank appeared in the TTCSP. The council was also number 36 in the subcategory of Best Managed Think Tanks and number 60 in the subcategory of Top Defense and National Security Think Tank in the World. Wow, the council came out of nowhere to be leaders. The “Foreign Policy in the New Millennium” was ranked number five on the Best Policy Study/Report by a Think Tank.

Now what’s concerning to me is that the Chicago Council on Global Affairs also brags that it “has expanded its contributions to policy discussions on topics such as global agriculture and food security, immigration and energy.”

I wonder if these thinkers actually know the difference between a plow and a planter, but they can write winning reports. Maybe this Chicago think tank got involved in opinions about the farm bill in Congress and made it an easy situation to quickly pass a farm bill, or maybe they are claiming they didn’t get involved but could have saved us all the problems if their opinions had been followed. I don’t know the situation.

All I know is that thinking and writing reports doesn’t solve problems, taking action solves problems. Operating groups to think extremely hard and overly long can also reduce the money available to take action.

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kansas  |  February, 03, 2014 at 11:43 AM

Think Tank Envy? Railing against biased and ill-informed "tanks" who ideologically oppose our industry won't make them change, go away or lose their influence on legislators, regulators or consumers. It's simply more self-pity and the whining about "unfairness" that we've engaged in, to our detriment, for decades. Instead, why not put some of our organizations' funds to use forming & promoting our own to counter them? We have plenty of highly intelligent but dry, uninspiring academics on our side who would be better used turning out studies to provide material for those with more charisma to present on our behalf. That's exactly what our opponents are doing, and we are stupid and doomed if we refuse to adopt the successful strategies and tactics of our enemies.

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