Meaningful action to reverse course on food and farm policy couldn’t be more urgent. The Biden Administration will inherit the most significant farm crisis in decades, unchecked factory farm pollution, rural communities in steep decline, and appallingly dangerous working conditions for food workers.
At the same time, the COVID pandemic has exposed the worst in our corporate-controlled food and farm systems. Supply chain breakdowns, meat stockpiled in warehouses while grocery store freezers were empty, increasing food insecurity, millions of factory farmed animals killed and crops plowed under for a lack of processing capacity — the astonishing lack of resiliency quickly became evident to consumers across the country. Meanwhile, the virus took, and continues to take, a heavy toll on food and farmworkers.
Our Advice To President-elect Biden On How To Save Our Food System And Smaller Farms
The Biden administration has no time to lose in reversing the worst food and farm policies of the Trump administration and greenlighting policies to protect farmers, rural communities, and the environment.
We have advice about where to start:
To stop agricultural consolidation from worsening while stronger protections are put in place, President Biden should issue an Executive Order directing his Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to enact a moratorium on large agribusiness mergers and to enforce existing antitrust protections to the fullest extent of the law.
USDA should revive a victim of the Obama administration’s own delay — the organic livestock regulations that USDA finalized on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. Trump’s USDA repeatedly delayed the rule, and then withdrew it in 2018. The rule would have strengthened organic animal welfare standards, and provided much-needed clear requirements for farmers and assurance to consumers that the organic label on their meat is meaningful.
USDA must also immediately prioritize worker and consumer safety by reversing dangerous rules that have allowed poultry and hog slaughterhouses to largely privatize inspections, removing federal inspectors from the lines. Trump’s USDA also allowed slaughterhouses to risk worker and food safety by speeding up their already breakneck kill lines, benefiting only the meat companies’ bottom lines.
Finally, USDA must address the decades of discrimination that have blocked farmers of color from participating in USDA programs and receiving aid. Discriminatory practices have accelerated land loss among Black and other historically-underserved farmers; yet under Vilsack’s leadership, USDA failed to make meaningful changes and compensate farmers for their losses. USDA must root out systemic racism within its own doors, and appoint leaders representative of affected communities, to ensure Vilsack’s promises of addressing systemic racism are put into action.
Biden Has Critical Work Within The EPA For Food System Impacts, Too
Biden’s EPA has an equally critical to-do list. Trump’s EPA spent four long years attacking the few environmental protections we have from factory farm and other industrial agribusiness pollution. These range from gutting the power of our bedrock laws like the Clean Water Act — removing countless waterways from protection against polluters altogether — to surgical exemptions from air pollution transparency requirements carved out specifically benefitting the factory farm industry.
Biden should begin by committing his EPA to revisit the scope of the Clean Water Act and rejecting the Trump EPA’s anti-science rule that drastically narrowed what qualifies as a “water of the United States.” Streams and wetlands once protected against unregulated factory farm pollution for decades are now beyond EPA’s reach unless the agency goes back to the drawing board. Any such rulemaking will surely end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, and EPA cannot afford to waste time in developing a scientifically and legally defensible rule that will put clean water first. But thanks to EPA’s hands-off approach to regulating Big Ag, this alone will not be not enough to protect waterways from factory farms. President Biden should also direct his EPA to rewrite its factory farm Clean Water Act rules to give them teeth and hold meat companies, not contract producers, responsible for illegal pollution.
The Biden administration must also take steps to regulate factory farm air pollution, which sickens rural communities and contributes to climate change. Biden should direct his EPA to rescind a Trump rollback rule that eliminated factory farms’ obligation to publicly report their hazardous air pollution, keeping communities in the dark about what they are being exposed to. If we are to stop the worst impacts of climate change, EPA must also establish Clean Air Act regulations for unchecked factory farm air emissions, including greenhouse gases. In short, Biden’s EPA must stop exempting factory farms from all meaningful pollution regulation and treat them as the industrial polluters they are.
President Biden Must Support The Farm System Reform Act And Other Crucial Legislation
Looking past the first 100 days, President Biden must look beyond executive authority and commit to supporting visionary legislation to overhaul our food and farming systems. The Farm System Reform Act is just such a bill, and will be reintroduced by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Ro Khanna in the next congress. In addition to enacting a ban on new and expanding large factory farms, the bill includes a long list of reforms that will make it possible for independent family-scale farmers to make a fair living raising animals the right way. It also includes funding to transition people operating factory farms to alternative and sustainable farming systems.
Many consumers began to understand the ugly truths of our corporate food system for the first time in 2020, and they’ve channeled their anger into action. People are joining together to advocate for reforming our food and farming systems to protect workers, consumers and the environment — instead of corporate profits.
The Biden administration has a choice to make: will it make a meaningful effort to address these issues, or will it settle for the same status quo that brought us to this point? The recent appointment of Tom Vilsack as USDA Secretary, whose eight years in the role under President Obama only worsened corporate consolidation, agribusiness pollution, and inequality in our food system, shows that we’re facing an uphill battle. But it’s one we must win.