Op-ed: Dear Secretary of Agriculture, This Is Your Chance

Despite concerns from many corners, there is a roadmap to progress at USDA.

Tom Vilsack speaks during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

President-elect Joe Biden’s appointment of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture has triggered a wave of anger and frustration from many corners of the food world, where pundits and activists have pointed to the ways he let down BIPOC farmers, small-scale producers, and environmental advocates during his eight years under the Obama administration.

It’s not clear how Vilsack will respond to this criticism. But one thing is clear: When he returns to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), he will be dealing with a world and a nation that have drastically changed from the time of his departure four years ago. The confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing food insecurity, climate-induced apocalyptic wildfires, rising rates of farm bankruptcy, soil erosion, polluted surface waters, wholesale undermining of the public’s trust in science, and the nation’s racial reckoning will demand a forceful and creative departure from the trends that have brought us to this point.

The good news is there are a number of clear strategies that the Secretary of Agriculture can immediately pursue to lead the USDA in a bold new direction. Here are 10 ways to begin.

1. Give Farmers a Climate Mitigation Blueprint

Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of farmers and the stability and viability of our food system. If the billion acres of agricultural land in this country were managed in a way that allowed carbon to be permanently sequestered in perennial vegetation and soil organic matter—and did not emit potent greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide—the climate footprint of agriculture would be vastly diminished. The model of the USDA regional Climate Hubs established in 2014 should be expanded so that it provides the tailored information and technical support for farmers and rural citizens to prevent and respond to climate change.

Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) has introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act to fund programs that will enable farmers to create a net-zero sector by 2040. The Secretary should support such creative initiatives and, when they are authorized by Congress, should work aggressively to implement them.

2. Break up Agribusiness Monopolies

Farm bankruptcy and consequent land loss drive consolidation of land into ever larger farms, and the concentration of wealth and economic inequality. A major factor is the inability of farmers to negotiate fair prices in an anticompetitive marketplace dominated by highly concentrated businesses and monopolies. This is abetted by the reinforcement of overproduction of low-value commodity crops that force farmers into the futile pursuit of profit through large-scale production.

To provide a dignified livelihood for as many farmers and rural businesses as possible, USDA must vigorously pursue legal and regulatory anti-trust and anti-monopoly concentration measures. In particular, the Secretary of Agriculture must demonstrate that he understands that the “A” in USDA is for “agriculture” and not for “agribusiness.”

3. Reform Farm Support Programs

Congress appropriates resources to help protect farmers from catastrophic loss through crop insurance. But the program is so flawed that it regularly rewards the largest farms with the least need for public support. Farm supports ballooned during the past administration and exacerbated these dysfunctions, converting a safety net program into a welfare program. Common sense reforms, such as means testing, stringent payment limitations, and a legitimate effort to link farmers’ ability to receive insurance to their work to improve soil health and other indicators of resilience can ensure that public resources are used responsibly and actually benefit farmers, and then principally those who most need support.

4. Ensure Everyone Can Eat

Because we’re a caring society, the new secretary must also rescind the Trump administration’s proposed rules (not one, not two, but three of them) that would restrict eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These restrictions contradict copious evidence of SNAP’s effectiveness and put hundreds of thousands of unemployed and underemployed adults at greater risk of food insecurity and poor health. And the new administration must follow through on Biden’s vow to increase SNAP benefits during a deepening recession.

5. Prioritize Public Health During the Pandemic

USDA can help prevent some of the diet-related diseases that are making too many communities vulnerable to COVID-19. Reinstating the rules that improved school meals in 2010—including adequate whole grains, reduced sodium, and more fruits and vegetables—would immediately improve the health prospects of 22 million children who participate in the USDA’s school lunch program, both by providing healthier food on a daily basis and by instilling a lifelong pattern of healthy eating.

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The Secretary can also fully implement the Department’s Dietary Guidelines, ensuring that science-based recommendations are applicable and accessible to every community, free from industry influence, which has played a sizable role in the past and can serve to exacerbate diet-related health disparities. This would improve the nation’s public health while securing the future of the food supply by prioritizing sustainable farming on par with nutritional considerations.

6. Reimagine a New Model for Land Stewardship

The average age of U.S. farmers is 58; 96 percent of them are white. Only 7 percent are able to make a living from farming. Access to land is a major barrier for entry to farming by younger and BIPOC farmers. Current farmland ownership is largely the result of a massive land grab that took place between the 17th century and the early 20th century. Having played a major role in appropriating Native American land and redistributing it among settlers, the federal government can and should play a role in reimagining how farmland can be stewarded throughout the generations without it being a wealth-generating asset held by select families.

Innovative approaches such as the establishment of land trusts with easements to promote sustainable farming practices could bridge the gap between retiring landowners who wish to transition their land without conceding it to large, consolidated farms and aspiring new farmers hoping to adopt sustainable practices for new markets. Just as the nation did for European settlers, the success of BIPOC and young farmers can be assured through special credit and loan programs, together with technical support.

Existing landowners should be paid fair market prices for their land, so that a past injustice is not compounded by new injustices. And as with the original Homestead Acts, which constituted affirmative action for white settlers, special consideration should be extended in the 21st century to the fact that descendants of people, both Native and Black, who stewarded and worked the land before being driven off, may desire to return. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which proposes how this might be done. Likewise, the USDA should prioritize programs that leverage the knowledge and aspirations of today’s farmworkers to create tomorrow’s farmers.

7. Spur Rural Development

Vibrant local and regional food systems, where rural residents are both the producers and the market for what they produce, can be built by seeding food hubs, processing plants, and distribution centers to handle fruits, vegetables, and livestock. This can then offer employment and economic development opportunities locally. In addition to supporting rural populations who seek to remain in place, this would provide a welcoming niche for the entrepreneurial skills of immigrants and BIPOC farmers and business people.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the consolidation of the food system makes it too easily prone to disruption, and that re-localizing can make that system more resilient. The USDA invests hundreds of millions of dollars in rural infrastructure annually. The agency should focus on building resilient regional economies that grow and sustain themselves, moving away from a model of patronage and subsidy for institutions and business models that are not able to sustain themselves without recurrent external support.

8. Rebuild Scientific Capacity

The gaps created by the systematic destruction of the scientific capacity of USDA over the past four years must be assessed methodically and restored. The independence and scientific integrity of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service must be rebuilt and safeguarded from the political pressures that future Secretaries might again be tempted to exert. At the least, the leadership of these agencies must be returned to offices in D.C., where they can be in close contact with peers within the senior level of USDA as well as with decision makers in other branches of government with whom they must share information and coordinate programs.

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One clear avenue to rectify historical inequities is to prioritize investment in the Black and Native American Land Grant institutions, which have consistently ranked lower than the original “flagship” Land Grant universities established for white settlers. These new investments should range from basic infrastructure to capacity building and research awards.

9. End Exploitation of Workers

All program areas of the sprawling USDA bureaucracy are implicated in support of a model of agriculture that has sanctioned the exploitation of people. A program-by-program review should be conducted to identify and change the rules and practices that support and reinforce inequitable systems. Line speeds in meat packing plants are an instance where USDA has direct input on the well-being of an exploited workforce, and where it can show that it understands the importance of prioritizing them over the profits of agribusiness.

10. Appoint People Who Can Rethink the System

Finally, one of the more potent strategies to transform and drag USDA into the 21st century has to do with the people who populate every one of its posts. In every one of the areas summarized, the perspective, experience, and expertise of people who have been viewed as outside the realm of “traditional”—i.e., extractive—agriculture should be tapped to conceptualize and implement the new way of thinking and doing things. This will require a major commitment and departure from USDA’s current approach.

And to make these transformations reality, the new secretary must immediately assess and rectify the gaps created by the last administration and rebuild the department’s capacity with a team that is diverse, expert, and not compromised by industry ties. Everyone on board must raise up the interests of all stakeholders, from farmers to food chain workers to school lunch directors so that the agency can actually begin to work for farmers at all scales, workers, and everyone else who depends on a functioning and equitable food system—not just for agribusiness.

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Ricardo Salvador is a senior scientist and director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Read more >

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