Four agriculture policy experts offered predictions on top priority issues for the Biden administration and Congress over the next four years.
The Farm Foundation Forum webinar brought in former ag secretaries Mike Espy, Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman, and Darci Vetter, a top ag trade negotiator for the Obama administration. The forums were held in Washington before the pandemic.
Espy, a Clinton appointee, began the discussion with four issues he anticipates will get renewed attention under the new secretary of agriculture — pandemic preparedness, trade policy, nutrition and equity in agriculture.
Espy said the research arm of the USDA must continue to develop, strategies to protect the food chain and workers. He said that federal policies and regulations have not been enforced, but that may be corrected with the next administration.
Espy said the possible expansion of food programs for those in need would fall under the USDA’s domain.
The drawback from the use of “blunt force” tariffs and the re-engagement with international trade agreements may be ways for the Biden administration to increase trade, Espy said, adding that Cuba is a prime candidate for opening up new agricultural markets.
And as for equity, Espy said, minority and female farmers seek improved access to USDA loan and insurance programs.
Glickman, who also served under President Bill Clinton, endorsed the points made by Espy and added climate as a fifth issue. He pointed out that the USDA has already done extensive research on climate change and weather volubility.
Drought, severe storms, flooding and pestilence need to be planned for, Glickman said. Farmers need guidance and recommendations on how to prepare for and recover from these climate-induced catastrophes.
Glickman emphasized the importance of a sufficient research budget to address all the issues facing the nation’s food supply. He said that the money for every program must come from Congress, and he urged a bipartisan approach to all the critical food-chain issues.
Veneman, a George W. Bush appointee, addressed the issues caused by the pandemic and discussed the need to expand the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program along with improving the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
Veneman said that the nation’s food distribution network has been upended by the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. She said USDA must work to restore the food distribution system, taking into account the changes in the way the public gets food.
For example, instead of going to restaurants, Americans are getting takeout or cooking at home. Online ordering of groceries has become commonplace. Plans need to be made to serve the farmers’ best interest as well as the concerns of distributors and retailers. She said there needs to be renewed efforts to enforce USDA inspections and regulations.
Veneman emphasized the importance of including food workers in the “essential workers” category. She said farmworkers need access to personal protective equipment and vaccinations.
Rural infrastructure, which includes broadband internet connectivity, must be a top priority over the next four years, Veneman said.
On the topic of climate change and the environment, Veneman recommended that the U.S. re-establish participation with international food and agriculture programs, such as the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program.
Veneman urged that good forest management be part of the response to climate change. She also urged the harnessing of new technology at USDA to enable more effective support for farmers, ranchers and their products.
Vetter, now the vice chair of agriculture, food and trade at Edelman Public Affairs, discussed the critical role climate and climate change play in rural development, conservation, carbon marketing and research.
She anticipates that USDA will focus on forecasting conditions and helping farmers prepare for disastrous scenarios.
Along with the other presenters, Vetter said the U.S. should rebuild relationships with international programs and trading partners. She also suggested that USDA may work closely with Congress on a bill to improve America’s rural infrastructure — from hospitals to schools to broadband coverage.
Vetter said that U.S. agriculture has the confidence of the public — both domestic and international. USDA needs to protect that reputation for quality and safety by establishing and protecting guidelines for the safety of farm products, farmers and farmworkers. Food processing must take into account the evolving food distribution chain. With public support of “buy local” and community supported agriculture, attention needs to focus on small operations.
USDA should have a major role in helping farmers pivot their plans, their crops and their retail or wholesale markets based on the public’s changing demands, Vetter said, adding that global trends and strategies can and should be shared.
International trade and research will protect farmers from relying too heavily on a single, saturated market. Espy pointed to agriculture trade with China as an important area for review by the executive branch.