American agriculture is bracing for tougher scrutiny of practices from environmental protections to workplace safety in the transition from the anti-regulatory regime under President Donald Trump to the Biden administration.
The key question will be the magnitude of pressure, amid divisions among Democrats about how hard to move on a progressive agenda. Another element of President-elect Joe Biden’s likely program for the Agriculture Department is more certain: greater food assistance for needy families.
With progressives using this early stage to push for anti-pollution rules that were anathema to Trump, the first hints of where the administration will fall on the regulatory spectrum will come from personnel appointments. Farmers and environmentalists alike will also be looking for details on how Biden will carry out a campaign pledge to make American agriculture the first in the world to go net-zero with emissions.
Even as Trump refuses to concede, the Biden team is moving ahead, with cabinet picks anticipated by mid-December. Progressives and moderates are already jockeying for position in personnel appointments.
Some activists have been openly campaigning against Heidi Heitkamp, widely seen as a leadingcandidate for Agriculture secretary. The former North Dakota senator led a group dedicated to bolstering Democrats’ appeal among rural voters, and she campaigned for Biden in farm country. Her critics say she is too friendly to corporate interests.
Among others cited as potential candidates, according to Democrats involved in agricultural policy, some of whom advised the Biden campaign:
- Representative Marcia Fudge, a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee who represents an urban Cleveland-area district, would be the first Black woman in the job and has discussed her interest in a Politico interview.
- California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, who served as chief of staff to Tom Vilsack, Agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama.
- Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who led the House Democrats’ campaign arm
- Krysta Harden, a former Obama administration Agriculture deputy secretary who now works with Vilsack as chief operating officer at the U.S. Dairy Export Council
- Maine Representative Chellie Pingree, a member of the House Agriculture Committee who owns an organic farm.
Outgoing Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are other potential candidates with more mainstream backgrounds.
Vilsack, who served as Agriculture secretary from 2009 to 2017 and has been advising the Biden team on rural issues, says the president-elect’s instinct will be to search for common ground between agricultural groups and the environmental movement.
“Given the vice president’s call for unity and the need for the country to unify to get us to a better place, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an effort to convene and bring people together people from the farm groups and the environmental groups,” said Vilsack, now chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. “I think there is an openness on the part of farm groups to at least have that conversation.”
The incoming administration can wield regulatory authority to address increased hunger among American families because of the Covid-19-crisis, which has left more than 10 million people unemployed.
Expect a quick reversal of Trump administration food-stamp restrictions stopping aid to an estimated 3.7 million Americans — though those rules have been in suspension during the pandemic. A Biden campaign pledge to raise the maximum benefit 15% during the economic downturn would require negotiations with Congress, however.
Robert Bonnie, an Obama USDA official who is leading the transition’s agriculture review team, was the lead author of a memo this week laying out potential moves in the first 100 days to kickstart the Biden climate agenda. The report called for a “Climate Strike Team” to evaluate existing policy and implement changes. The new administration will also need to move quickly to draft a budget proposal for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
Tensions between the Democratic progressives and moderates surfaced even before the election results, most vividly over how to push farmers to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is responsible for 12% of U.S. carbon emissions and a higher portion of methane and nitrous oxide output.
In his campaign, Biden stressed payments to encourage farmers to take climate-friendly steps such as storing more carbon in soil and using methane digesters to reduce livestock emissions. Some environmental activists want more aggressive action to force changes through regulations or the threat of penalizing farmers who fail to adapt with lower subsidy payments.
One option to fight climate change would be to quickly gear up a carbon bank for farmers by tapping the borrowing authority of the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation, the same Depression-era entity Trump used to unilaterally provide funds for trade aid to farmers. This strategy was endorsed by Bonnie, the agriculture review team leader, who has suggested it as a goal for the first 100 days.
Biden allies and former Obama administration officials also anticipate pressure to reverse regulatory actions that allowed slaughterhouses to speed up production lines, raising safety risks for workers. In the Senate, presidential primary candidates Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris took up the cause against the faster production lines.
Industry associations so far have largely refrained from public criticism of the president-elect’s team and priorities.
“It’s pretty early in the process to be assuming that the sky is falling” with regard to environmental regulations, said Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “We look forward to telling him the other side of the story,” he said of Biden. “We think we have a pretty good story to tell about the ecosystem service benefits and stewardship cattle producers provide.”
Howard Roth, president of National Pork Producers Council and a hog farmer from Wisconsin, in a statement that “care for our environment and worker safety are shared values. We are ready to inform the new administration about our production practices.”
Biden has provided less clarity on his trade strategy, though the industry anticipates greater stability once it’s presented. American farm exports were a casualty of Trump’s trade conflict with China, with exports hurt by Chinese retaliation. While the January phase-one trade agreement committed Beijing to ramp up purchases, the Covid-19 crisis has hampered trade flows, and the risk under Trump remained of renewed bouts of escalating tensions.
Biden will place a higher priority on enforcing competition rules after the Democratic primaries featured resentment against big agribusinesses, compounded by anger over Covid-19 outbreaks at giant meatpacking plants. That will likely translate into more aggressive government investigations, mandatory virus-safety measures for meat-plant workers and better price transparency in livestock markets. Some advocates will press for stricter standards to review mergers and acquisitions.
“The Biden administration will put an emphasis on competition issues, and that will build upon some of the attention that has been on that space because of the struggles in the food-supply and meatpacking sector due to the pandemic,” said Mike Stranz, director of advocacy for the National Farmers Union, the nation’s second largest general-farm organization, historically aligned more closely with Democrats.
About the photo: Dairy cows stand in a barn at Stone-Front Farm in Lancaster, Wisconsin, U.S., on Thursday, April 23, 2020. Production hit an all-time high in March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week, expanding even before the usual seasonal peak which typically takes place in May. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
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