With Biden Victory, It’s Time to Follow the Science and Rebuild Our Food System and the USDA

November 7, 2020 | 12:08 pm
Photo: originalpunkt/Shutterstock
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Well, the 2020 election is finally over, and we will soon see the end of the cruelest, crookedest, and most viciously dishonest, anti-science, anti-environment presidential administration anyone alive can remember. If you care about people and the planet—including the soil, water, and climate that sustain us and ensure we can eat—you’re likely relieved but exhausted. Celebrations will be muted. And there is still the work of fighting ongoing battles with these lamest of lame ducks, even as we’re charting how to pick up the pieces and move on into a Biden administration.

While it will be a relief to say good riddance to people who very clearly never cared much for the truth or the public interest, what’s more important is making sure their successors are up to the job of returning to facts, science, and good governance. More than that, we should be seeking follow-through on campaign commitments (and maybe even some new ones) to actions that will make our country and its food system more equitable and sustainable than it was before. Building back…better, you might say.

It’s time for the USDA to follow the science, not reward industry

On the campaign trail, candidate Biden frequently vowed to choose truth over lies and science over fiction. This would be a welcome change across the federal government, including at the US Department of Agriculture. Science at the USDA is vital. It helps keep our food supply safe and abundant. It helps farmers contend with a host of challenges, from extreme weather and soil erosion to emerging pests and trade instability. But scientific capacity and integrity at the USDA is in trouble after four years in which Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue suppressed the department’s scientists and their work for political reasons, buried a sweeping science plan to guide the USDA’s response to climate change, and gutted two of its leading research agencies through a politically motivated office relocation.

So the incoming administration has a lot of work to do to rebuild USDA’s scientific capacity and restore science-based policymaking. Our recommendations include unearthing and implementing the agency’s buried Climate Resilience Science Plan and rescinding regulations for which science was sidelined. In addition, immediate action is needed to rebuild scientific capacity at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which lost 75 percent of their staff when Secretary Perdue relocated the agencies from Washington DC to Kansas City last year. In a recent news article, the USDA deputy undersecretary for research talked about hiring in Kansas City, given how many positions are vacant: Hutchins said the agencies now need to make sure they’re hiring people who fill needs instead of hiring just to hire.

Hiring just to hire? The Biden administration can and must do better. This includes returning science-program leadership positions to the nation’s capital so they can fulfill the agencies’ mission of informing policymakers, and moving quickly to bring on board appropriately skilled scientists to fill vacant positions. While I don’t believe that candidate Biden ever commented on these issues, the VP-elect did: back in June 2019, Senator Harris joined a group of 19 Senate colleagues in formally requesting an investigation of “potential instances of suppression and alteration of scientific reports,” as well as “retaliation” against employees in the department’s research agencies. (The USDA’s Inspector General took up the request but has yet to release a final report on the matter.)

Then there’s the issue of industry influence at the USDA. A perennial problem, it has rarely if ever been as blatant as in the current administration. Back in 2018, dismayed by Secretary Perdue’s background and first year on the job, we published a “blistering” report detailing his many agribusiness industry entanglements and ethical lapses, and disregard for science and the public interest. Since then, things have only gotten worse: Secretary Perdue has presided over a growing list of attacks on science, handed out jobs and favors to big industry interests, utterly failed (and even insulted) farmers who have suffered under his policies, and illegally used his job for political purposes. President-elect Biden should move quickly to replace Perdue and his team with public servants who won’t betray people’s trust.

It’s time to rebuild US agriculture…from the ground up

Soil is at the foundation of our food system and is vital for our future. Healthy, living soil promotes healthy crops, holds water, prevents pollution, stores carbon, and helps ensure that farmers and their communities can thrive. Yet decades of short-sighted farm policies have incentivized practices—such as growing just one or two crops instead of more diverse rotations, and leaving soil bare after harvests—that have depleted and damaged this foundation. As a result, estimates have suggested that US farms lose more than three trillion pounds of soil to erosion each year.

To rebuild this critical life-support system, we need science-based public policies that invest in farmers and soil. Polling during the campaign indicated that voters in farm states want such action, and at a Iowa debate way back in January, candidate Biden said this:

“We’re the only country in the world that’s ever taken a great crisis and turned it into great opportunity. And one of the ways to do it is with farmers here in Iowa, by making them the first group in the world to get to net zero emissions by paying them for planting and absorbing carbon in their fields.”

Smart new food and farm policies can spur economic recovery and revitalization in rural communities that were hurting well before the pandemic, while buffering farmers from the impacts of climate change and helping them be part of the solution. Digging into the details of Biden’s plan to Strengthen Rural America, we’ve found there’s a lot to like. Like this: “Biden will partner with farmers to help them…develop new income streams as they tackle the challenge of sequestering carbon, reducing emissions, and continue their track record as global leaders in agricultural innovation—making American agriculture the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and create new sources of income for farmers in the process.”

That’s great, and I hope it means the new administration will pursue greater investment of USDA resources in financial and technical assistance to help farmers adapt to and mitigate climate change through proven agroecological farming practices. A good sign: Biden’s plan makes explicit mention of doing exactly that, promising to “dramatically expand and fortify” the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which my colleagues have shown returns an impressive $4 in benefits for every dollar invested.

But here’s where serious caution is warranted. Biden’s plan says that it will use this pioneering program “to support farm income through payments based on farmers’ practices to protect the environment, including carbon sequestration” and “ensure [CSP] can participate in carbon markets”—essentially, paying farmers for carbon stored in their soils and using it to offset heat-trapping emissions elsewhere.

This is potentially problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the Biden administration will need to be careful not to overestimate the ability of agriculture to achieve large and lasting carbon offsets. Carbon stored in farm soils during one growing season can be released to the atmosphere again the next, if practices aren’t maintained. And second, carbon markets that benefit farmers in the Midwest can have deeply unjust side effects—if they allow pollution from, say, oil and gas refineries to continue harming communities of color on the Gulf Coast.

Bottom line, if the new administration allows farm programs to contribute to a carbon market system, credits granted for reversible sequestration must not be used to offset irreversible emissions, and there must be explicit science and equity-based guardrails in place to ensure that such a system benefits everyone equally, without adversely impacting some communities.

Moreover, it’s not enough to make a very White profession—today just five percent of US farms are operated by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers—more environmentally sustainable. A colleague has written eloquently that we can’t separate justice and sustainability in the food system. And so it will be important for the Biden team to follow through on their commitments (which reflect recommendations from UCS and partners) to address racial inequities in farming:

“As President, Biden will pursue a dedicated agenda to close racial wealth gaps – including for rural Americans of color. One key way in which Biden will advance racial economic equity in rural America is by addressing longstanding inequities in agriculture. Black, Brown and Native farmers have long faced barriers to growing their agricultural businesses, including unfair prices, unequal access to government support, retaliation for civil rights complaints, and outright injustice.”

The Biden-Harris administration must do what the Obama-Biden administration started but didn’t finish: make agriculture equitable for BIPOC farmers and communities.

It’s time to protect essential food workers and ensure everyone can eat

We have seen in stark terms throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (and also before it) how our food system mistreats its workers and fails to ensure that everyone in this country can put food on the table. The Trump administration and its policies have contributed shamefully to these problems: they have continually sought to restrict access to federal food assistance, even during the health and economic crisis (going so far as to fight states in court over it), and refused to mandate health protections for at-risk frontline food workers—like meat and poultry plant workers—and their communities.

The impact of the pandemic on food workers isn’t going away and may be about to get worse. So immediately upon taking office, the Biden administration and new Congress must pass a COVID response and stimulus bill that includes help for frontline workers. The HEROES Act, passed by the House of Representatives last May but left to languish by the White House and Senate leaders, would be a good place to start. Biden’s extensive COVID plan also commits to giving “all frontline workers high-quality and appropriate personal protective equipment,” and directing the currently AWOL Occupational Safety and Health Administration to do its job by issuing an Emergency Temporary Standard for keeping frontline workers safe.

The Biden USDA 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. 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 candidate Biden’s vow to increase SNAP benefits during a deepening recession.

The path forward will be long and require continued action and vigilance

Undoing the damage done to our government and our country over the last four years isn’t going to be easy. That’s as true at the USDA as anywhere else. We will need to work hard to demonstrate solutions to vexing problems that have only gotten worse, and to hold the incoming Biden administration’s feet to the fire to deliver on the promise and potential of the coming months and years.

But with decent people who respect science back in charge, I have hope again that a healthier, more just, resilient, and sustainable food system is possible.