Experts watching the nascent Biden administration’s early moves in Washington say they’re seeing clear action on climate and racial equity in the food system, according to a panel at the 2021 Trust In Food Symposium: Regenerative Reset held in late February.
Here are observations from five leaders in U.S. food and agriculture based on the first weeks of the new presidency.
Jim Wiesemeyer, Pro Farmer Washington Analyst: “I fully expect climate change to be [U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s] top priority other than the COVID impacts. In that regard, he’s got his marching orders from Biden. I’ve never seen a president in my over 40 years of watching government have a whole-of-government approach like they do on climate change.”
Jeremy Peters, CEO, National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD): “Our members, the 3,000 conservation districts cross the country, work very closely with USDA at the local level. There’s just so much work there that’s ongoing, from recent activities [on] the 2018 farm bill and a lot of work that’s ongoing at the local level to continue to deliver soil- and water-related natural resource benefits to communities.
“We want to really see as the new administration is scaling up how they’re going to be working with their local counterparts, and how they’re going to continue not only to deliver the current suite of programs, but also what we’re talking about in terms of climate, and how the existing federal, state, local delivery system can be leveraged to help achieve some of those benefits.”
Joe Bischoff, Principal, Cornerstone Government Affairs: “It’s interesting to see how strongly and forcefully they’ve come out on climate change and carbon sequestration, and [Jim] also referenced COVID and food supply infrastructure. But I think the thing we’re probably watching most closely now is … the people that are going to be at the under secretary, deputy under secretary levels that are going to have to execute on a lot of these policies. I think we’re looking to see who those folks are and their backgrounds and the experience that they have on carbon sequestration, climate and other issues. I think that gives us a good measure of how forcefully and quickly they’ll be able to move on some of these things.”
Ebony Webber, Chief Operating Officer, Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS): “We do a lot of work with youth development, early career professionals and do a lot of work around diversity and inclusion within the food and ag industry. So for us, it will mainly be one, the filling of the Office of the Secretary for Civil Rights. That is a role that was left unfilled by the last administration. Being able to prioritize some of those civil rights issues that Black, Indigenous and Latinx farmers have and … hopefully bringing some reconciliation and some relief to those farmers will be ideal.
“There have also been some new bills proposed that will bring support specifically to Black, Indigenous and Hispanic farmers. We’re looking for any of those programs to really just support overall greater access and inclusivity of Black, brown and other racial minority farmers and really just advance overall the role that USDA has played in enacting some of those systemic barriers, seeing some of those removed.”
Carly Hotvedt, Director of Tribal Enterprise, Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative: “We are a policy tank, but we are looking for some different facets of that as we focus on Indian country agriculture. I think the primary context to really understand what I’m looking for and what I’ve been seeing with this administration is a recognition that there is a strong theme and thread through Indian country with a strong focus on regenerative and resilient agriculture, which includes a lot more consideration for a holistic view of environmental and land management activities. With that, we’ve seen some progress from the Biden administration in strengthening the government-to-government relationship with tribes through newly issued executive orders, with regard to consultation mandates.
“We’ve also seen a lot of progress in a lot of the staff and personnel that are filling some of the appointed positions. Heather Dawn Thompson is now the USDA director of the Office of Tribal Relations, she’s an Indigenous attorney, so we’re very excited to see her in that position. I was just made aware that the Office of the General Counsel is bringing on another Indigenous attorney who’s been practicing in Indian law and agriculture for quite some time, so it’ll be good insight there, in addition to some of the appointed positions and hired positions.
“We’ve also had the White House Domestic Policy Council reach out and convene a panel of experts to discuss opportunities for Tribal sovereignty in agriculture from the perspective of economic development and land management, and also from food, nutrition and food safety. The Office of Tribal Relations has also reached out to my organization to put together a report with regard to racial disparity in application of USDA policy with regard to Indian country.
“Those aren’t the things I’m looking for—those are the things I’ve already seen to indicate that there has been a significant progress of commitment to diversity and inclusion when it comes to agriculture and USDA-related activities. I think we’re in a good spot. Obviously, it’s still early in the administration, but the things that need to happen have been happening so far.”