The Field Report: Tom Vilsack on How the USDA Can Transform the Food System | Civil Eats

The Field Report: Tom Vilsack on How the USDA Can Transform the Food System

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announces Food System Transformation at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2022. (USDA photo by Tom Witham)

Improving the food system may not seem like a top priority at a time when tragedies due to the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, and gun violence abound. But yesterday morning, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack kicked off a speech at Georgetown University arguing that, in fact, how the U.S. farms and eats is tied to many of the biggest problems the country faces.

“A transformed food system is part of how we as a country become more resilient in the face of these big challenges and threats,” he said, as he outlined the key components of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new Food System Transformation Framework.

Released yesterday, the plan includes a long list of investments—from production to distribution to consumption—that aim to build resilience within supply chains, improve fairness for farmers, make nutritious food more accessible, and increase economic equity for producers and communities that have been historically underserved by the agency.

While it’s billed as a “transformation,” the framework does not change the foundational structures or practices of the American food system. It does, however, emphasize regionalism, support for organic and urban farming, and nutrition in new ways. That’s a significant shift for the agency, which has historically prioritized efficiency over all else.

“We need to be able to balance the efficiency with resiliency,” Vilsack said during a panel discussion that featured regional food hub innovator Haile Johnston, California organic farmer Javier Zamora, and Georgia physician-nutritionist Sharica Brookins.

In addition to recent investments in regional meat processing, the framework includes hundreds of millions of dollars to increase funding for various local and regional food programs and introduce new initiatives. Those include $60 million for farm-to-school purchasing, $50 million to help seniors shop at farmers’ markets, and $400 million to create regional food business centers. The framework also creates a new $300 million initiative to help more farmers transition to organic practices and certification and directs $75 million to urban agriculture.

After the USDA event, Civil Eats sat down with Vilsack to ask him about the plan and how it relates to food access, agriculture, climate, and equity—big issues on the minds of many Americans right now. We also share other big news that emerged from a busy week at the agency.

You spoke about schools as critical to nutrition security. Many groups are saying the expiration of school meal waivers at the end of June is going to have devastating consequences on kids while pandemic-related challenges continue. What is USDA doing to address that issue?

We are working with Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and others . . . to see whether or not there’s still the possibility that some vehicle could be created that would allow Congress to revisit their decision to not grant the waiver. So, that advocacy continues. If it becomes clear that that’s not gonna happen, then in addition to what we’ve already done—which is to trigger the very limited waiver authority that we have—we’ll take a look at whether resources might be available to provide assistance. We’ll look at other ways in which we can provide help and assistance if it becomes necessary.

You spoke a lot today about what your agency has been doing to make the food system fairer, especially for meat producers. The Congressional report that was released a few weeks ago found that meat companies basically dictated the USDA’s approach to addressing COVID-19 in the plants in the early days of the pandemic, before you were at the agency. What changes have you made since taking over to curb the influence of those companies and what more needs to be done?

Let’s back up to the challenge. The pandemic was ignored by the companies at the outset and by virtue of that a lot of their employees got sick and it created disruption. I think the companies now recognize it’s in their long-term interest to have their folks vaccinated. So, I don’t think we’re confronting the same set of circumstances. Our focus on the meat and poultry industry has been more of: How do we expand capacity? How do we create more competition? And so we’ve announced a series of things, which I outlined in the speech today, to help existing, smaller facilities.

I didn’t mention it in the speech, but we are helping very small facilities with discounts on the inspection fees. We’ve got the loan guarantee program . . . and now we’ve got the grant program. We’ve got 250 [applicants] and will be making decisions about that sometime this summer. So, over the next six months or so, capacity will begin to expand.

The second thing we’re doing is making sure that we look at our Packers and Stockyards enforcement efforts, and there are two things we’re doing in that respect. One is we’re shoring up some of the rules so that it’s a stronger set of tools that we have for enforcement. Secondly, we’ve asked Congress to appropriate enough money so we have people that actually can enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act. And third, we are providing technical assistance to a number of members of Congress who are interested in creating a law that would create greater transparency and more cash sales in the market place. . . . We’ll continue to provide that and we will be prepared to implement that, should they pass it.

You announced a new investment in organic transition today. Over the past year, some groups have been disappointed that organic hasn’t been more central to the agency’s climate plans. Does this new investment signal a bigger role for organic, specifically related to USDA’s climate goals?

I don’t understand that criticism because of our focus on organic. The organic industry came to us and basically said, “Look, there have been rules that have been hanging here for years . . . and we would like to see them done.” So, we’ve gotten the Origin of Livestock rule through and are in the process of completing the work on the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule that will be coming out very shortly. And sometime this fall, we will have a rule that will strengthen organic standards.

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People said, “Look, you need to protect the brand. You need to beef up the National Organic Program. You need a senior advisor in in your office or in the building,” all of which we’ve done. We’ve backed the National Organic Standards Board on some of the decisions they’ve recently made. All of that is designed to help and support the industry, and there is no reason why the organic industry couldn’t apply for the resources that we created with the Climate-Smart Commodities program. There’s a billion dollars sitting on the table, and they could come in with an application to do X, Y or Z, which we would obviously take a look at.

So, what this announcement is designed to do is to say, “We’d like to see that higher-value opportunity [that farmers access through the organic premium] more available and even more easily obtainable.” We know it’s a problem: [Organic certification is] complicated. It’s expensive. It’s tough. And they need help. So, here’s money to get a mentoring program in place. Here’s money to potentially look at ways in which we can either right-size the market where there’s too much supply and not enough market or right-size the demand where there’s a lot of market but not enough demand, not enough supply. That’s what we’re trying to do with the $300 million. I think it’s a very important signal about the significance and importance we place on organic as part of the overall system.

Also on climate, you recently announced some producers who have acres in the Conservation Reserve Program could take them out early to increase grain production.

Not take them out. The way CRP operates, you get a contract for so many years, and at the end of that contract, you have a decision to make as a producer. You can re-enroll your acres or you can decide to take them out of the program. Farmers make that decision. So, this year . . . those acres that are coming out of the program because farmers have decided not to re-enroll, we’re essentially saying, “Normally we would prohibit you from doing anything on that land until October 1. Now, if you want to have access to your land before October 1, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the nesting season, then you can maybe plant winter wheat or you can do something on the land that will make it more likely to be productive in the future earlier than you would otherwise be able to. That’s what we’re allowing.

Okay, but does that compromise goals to use CRP as a tool to take more land out of production to improve carbon sequestration?

No, because we trust the farmers to make the right set of decisions. We’ve created a series of incentives to encourage farmers to consider CRP and that gives them options. We haven’t yet announced the Grasslands sign-up, and that’s obviously going to result in significantly more acres being added. At the end of the day, we’re gonna be probably 2 to 3 million acres below the cap, at 27 million acres. And based on the circumstances with high commodity prices, that’s pretty good actually. It’s significantly higher than it was.

Equity was a huge piece of the plan you talked about today, but one of your efforts to deliver debt relief to Black farmers has so far been thwarted by a lawsuit brought by a group of white farmers. What is your plan to accelerate action to correct historic wrongs for those farmers?

It hasn’t been thwarted, it’s been stalled. There’s an injunction and 12 cases that are pending. We’re working through those cases and making the case to the courts that this is constitutional. This is viable. This is reasonable. This is the right thing to do. We have to await the court’s decision. There is something Congress could do: Congress could decide to adjust or redefine the universe of people receiving help and assistance under Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan. That’s their choice and their decision to do. If they do that, then it potentially could have an impact on the litigation. It might speed up debt relief; it might impact and affect the type of debt relief that’s available. But . . . we’re fighting those cases and advancing them and arguing them and supporting our position.

And then in the meantime, we’ve got [Section] 1006, which is the second piece of the American Rescue Plan devoted to equity. That’s where some of the money came from for a number of the organizations that are now providing technical assistance to historically underserved producers. We will in the very near future be announcing additional resources in that area focused on land access and market access and developing the next generation of leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Read more:
Op-ed: One Year in, Where Vilsack’s USDA Stands on 10 Key Measures
In a Year of Climate Reckoning, Where Does Joe Biden Stand on Climate and Agriculture?
Black Farmers Still Await Debt Relief
Can Organic Farming Solve the Climate Crisis?

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Tournament Rules. Last week, USDA published the first of three expected rules intended to strengthen Packers and Stockyards Act protections for farmers within an increasingly consolidated meatpacking industry. The rule is focused on the poultry industry’s notoriously unfair tournament system, which forces growers—who have no control over inputs, including chicks and feed—to compete against one another. In the past, companies have retaliated against growers who have spoken out about the system by sending lower-quality inputs and denying them flock placements. The rule would require chicken companies to share details about inputs with farmers—including inputs provided to other farmers they are competing with—and provide contracts specifying guaranteed annual flock placements and density. It will be open for public comment once it’s entered into the federal register.

So far, farmer advocacy groups, including the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign and RAFI-USA, said that while the agency could do more, the changes would be meaningful. “We’ve long advocated for the USDA to rule that any tournament system or formula payment arrangement that bases grower compensation on factors outside their control to be an unfair practice,” says Aaron Johnson, RAFI-USA’s Challenging Corporate Power program manager. “While this rule stops short of that standard, if finalized, it takes many important steps toward giving contract poultry growers the information they need to better advocate for themselves, while significantly increasing transparency in the industry.”

Meanwhile, the meat industry’s trade association said it was still reviewing the rule, but “we remain concerned about further government intrusion in the market through possible proposed rules.”

Read more:
Just a Few Companies Control the Meat Industry: Can a New Approach to Monopolies Level the Playing Field?
Biden Targets Consolidation in the Meat Industry (Again)

Stopping Superbugs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), antibiotic resistance is today’s biggest public health threat. And the food system has long been a major contributor to the problem due to the continued regular use of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture (and other sectors, like citrus). Last week, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced $5 million in nine research projects meant to contribute to the “overall federal strategy to combat antimicrobial resistance. Projects will study whether certain feed additives in poultry production can reduce the spread of resistant bacteria, the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in retail vegetables, and how resistant bacteria spreads in male dairy calf supply chains, among other topics.

Read more:
Is the U.S. Doing Enough to Address the Meat Industry’s Role in Antibiotic Resistance?
Could a Rapid Test for Antibiotics Bring Transparency to Meat?

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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