9 Ways Biden May Reshape Food and Farming for the Better

Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
February 19, 2021

Within his first month in office, President Biden has issued executive orders and announced policies that could transform our country’s food and agriculture. After four years of the Trump administration’s rollbacks of regulations and food policies, including sustainable agricultureworker safetyfood security, and environmental protections, the Biden administration aims to reverse course and reinvest in food, agriculture, and nutrition.

In a country grappling with the COVID pandemic, economic crisis, racial injustice, and climate disasters, the administration has much work to do to not only recover, but build back better for a more equitable and regenerative food system. Here are some early signs of priorities within Biden’s food and agriculture agenda.

Confronting Systemic Racism

Biden has pledged to address our country’s long history of discrimination against Black farmers, including at the Department of Agriculture. However, racial justice advocates have been skeptical of his nomination of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, who had a poor civil rights record during his tenure under the Obama administration. During his Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing, Vilsack attempted to address concerns, saying, “We need to fully, deeply, and completely address the longstanding inequities, unfairness, and discrimination that has been the history of USDA programs for far too long,” while announcing a policy of zero tolerance for discrimination and a plan for an Equity Task Force to address systemic racism.

He said that the USDA plans to improve access to land, loans, and technical assistance for farmers of color by working with trusted members within minority communities, and making the appeals board more diverse. Diversity at the USDA will also need to be reflected in leadership, starting with the appointment of the first Black woman as Undersecretary of Agriculture, Jewel Bronaugh. Congress is also taking steps to address discrimination by introducing the Justice for Black Farmers Act to reform the USDA and provide land grants for a new generation of Black farmers.

COVID Hunger Relief

COVID has exacerbated the hunger crisis in America, with 1 in 7 households in the U.S. now food insecure, including 1 in 5 Black and Latino households. Biden’s Executive Order for Emergency Relief included provisions to extend SNAP benefits, ensuring that an additional 12 million people receive them. It also includes a 15% increase of benefits under the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program, which provides food dollars for families with children to cover meals while schools are closed. In addition, the order asks the USDA to revise its Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits, to better reflect the higher cost of a healthy, adequate diet. 

Improving Access to Nutritious Food

In addition to Biden’s executive order, Vilsack discussed the federal government’s plans to address food insecurity and improve access to nutritious food to reduce obesity and other health problems like diabetes, particularly for people of color. He said the USDA plans to promote nutrition assistance by working with governors and mayors to make programs more convenient and accessible, including streamlining the application process. He also talked about investing in infrastructure for food banks and pantries, such as increased refrigeration storage. 

Helping Farmworkers

Advocates for farmworkers, like Dolores Huerta, are hopeful seeing that Biden’s Oval Office includes a bust of Cesar Chavez, interpreting it as a show of support. Food and agricultural workers, many of whom are immigrants, have suffered tremendously during the pandemic, and have the highest risk of death from COVID among California’s workers, according to a recent UCSF study

Biden issued an executive order asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue new workplace safety guidance. The Government Accountability House issued a report stating it would examine the meatpacking industry’s response to COVID, and on February 1, a House subcommittee on COVID sent letters to industrial meat producers requesting information about worker complaints, illnesses, and deaths during the pandemic. 

On his first day in office, Biden sent the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to Congress, which will immediately grant green cards to undocumented farmworkers with work histories. To qualify, workers must show they have worked for at least 100 days in four of the preceding five years and pass a criminal background check. After three years, farmworkers can become citizens.

Support for Climate-Smart Agriculture

As the U.S. faces increasingly worse weather events, from wildfires to winter storms, the Biden administration plans to make agriculture a cornerstone of its climate change agenda. On January 27, Biden issued an executive order that directs the Secretary of Agriculture to collect input from farmers and ranchers on how to use federal programs to encourage climate-smart agricultural practices, and calls for creating a Civilian Climate Corps with goals like increasing carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector. 

The administration has announced plans to create a carbon bank that pays benefits to farmers. Crop insurance will also incentivize climate-smart agriculture. Other plans include turning waste into new materials, such as pelletized fertilizer or biogas; research to develop crops that sequester carbon; methane capture and reuse; and increased renewable energy use on farms. 

Reexamining Pesticides

Biden’s executive orders on the environment include a review of Trump policies that weakened pesticide protections for agricultural workers. The administration plans to review approximately 100 Trump environmental policies, including the EPA’s decision not to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, despite research showing it harms the brains of developing fetuses and young children, and causes dizziness, headaches and nausea in farmworkers. California banned the sale of chlorpyrifos in 2020. Here’s a comprehensive list of environmental rules under review.

Focus on Healthy Soil and Regenerative Agriculture

During his confirmation hearing, Vilsack stated that the USDA plans to move away from an “extraction economy to a more circular or regenerative economy.” He discussed providing financial incentives for farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices such as cover cropping, no-till methods, and precision agriculture to help reduce fertilizer use. The agency will focus on improving soil health and increase funding for the Conservation Stewardship and Conservation Reserve Programs. He aims to make the USDA more supportive of organic agriculture and review rules that provide loopholes. 

Creating Open, Competitive Markets

Farmers and advocates are rightfully wary of Vilsack, due to his strong ties with corporate agribusiness and failure to break up agricultural monopolies under his previous tenure. Following up on Biden’s campaign promise to address monopolies, Vilsack discussed support for a task force to examine antitrust issues related to market concentration and the need for greater transparency and competition in markets. He expressed concern that too few meat processing facilities is undermining the resiliency of the country’s food system, which became apparent during the pandemic when the closure of large facilities disrupted supply. Vilsack also supports taking a look at patent laws for seeds and expanding public research to reduce their price. 

Growing Regional Food Systems

During his confirmation hearing, Vilsack indicated an interest in diversifying the food supply chain by investing in local, regional markets and small and medium sized producers. Work began during the Obama administration, but more needs to be done, according to Vilsack, such as forming food hubs for small producers; expanding farmers markets; expanding farm-to-school, college, and prison food programs; making it easier to transition to organic; and creating more processing facilities.

He recognized that farmers in small, rural communities need technical assistance and education about how to access USDA funding. The agency plans to support increased investment in land grant universities so they can continue to do research, educate, and provide information to the agricultural community. 

The Senate will vote to confirm on Vilsack on February 23. While much still needs to be seen in terms of how the administration will follow through on its promises, sustainable food advocates seem hopeful there are positive changes on the horizon. “During today’s hearing, Vilsack said many things that a farmer would want to hear,” said Eric Deeble of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “We look forward to holding him accountable to these pledges made before the Committee today and to working together to make our food and farm system more equitable and sustainable for all.”

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