Changes ahead projected at USDA

Veteran agriculturalists probably remember former ag secretaries Mike Espy, Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman, as well as former chief ag negotiator Darci Vetter. During a recent webinar, the four shared their thoughts on President-elect Joe Biden's future agricultural policies.

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Former top ag officials spoke on a webinar Dec. 8, 2020, about what to expect from the upcoming Biden administration in terms of ag policy. (Farm Foundation webinar)

U.S. farmers and ranchers are wondering what the 2021 crop season will bring. They're also wondering what the next four years will bring under President-elect Joe Biden's ag policies, a question that a recent webinar sought to answer.

Though "I don't see anything revolutionary coming" in some areas, there will be a number of changes and areas of greater focus, including trade and nutrition, said former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, an assessment shared by other speakers in the event.

Espy spoke during a Dec. 8 webinar hosted by the Farm Foundation, which says "it accelerates practical solutions for agriculture ." The event was open to the news media.

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Also on the panel were former secretaries of agriculture Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman, as well as Darci Vetter, former chief agricultural negotiator, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.


Espy said some aspects of farm policy will stay the same.

"There won't be much difference in what we have now" in the current income and insurance programs, he predicted.

But he anticipated "renewed focus" in five areas: pandemic response, trade, rural development, nutrition and greater diversity in production agriculture.

To support good crop prices, "We need to increase trade, particularly to China and to new markets like Cuba," said Espy, who served as ag secretary from 1993 to 1994.

The Biden administration also is likely "to use the tariff tool very, very gingerly," unlike the Trump administration, he said.

Biden expected to approach trade differently than Trump

Glickman, ag secretary from 1995 until 2001, said the next administration will, or at least should, focus on doing more to prevent the next pandemic. He noted that zoonotic diseases โ€” one that can be transmitted from animals to people โ€” should be a particular concern.

"Adequate funding for the research agenda" should be the top priority, he said. "We do very little research in the area of zoonotics."


The "science of nutrition," or analyzing the science of nutrition, is important, too. And the climate โ€” "climate writ large" โ€” will be high on the Biden administration agenda, Glickman said.

SNAP, climate and more

Veneman, ag secretary from 2001 to 2005, served from 2005 to 2010 as executive director of UNICEF, also known as the United Nations Children's Fund

Now, during the pandemic, "We can't ignore the fact that we have lines and lines of people waiting for food at food banks," she said.

So, the new administration will need to examine how more people can be served through the USDA's SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP "provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budgets of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency," according to USDA.

Helping hungry people overseas is vital, too, Veneman said.

Dealing with pandemic-related disruptions in the supply chain should be another priority, she said.

"I think USDA can play a very important role going forward in how to facilitate the discussion about the supply chain and how to avoid long disruptions in the future," Veneman said.

Future of ag policy uncertain under Biden administration
Increased attention on improving broadband access in rural areas and doing a better of controlling wildfires on public land should be top goals, too, she said.


Finally, the Biden administration will focus heavily on "climate and environment, and I think this is going to be something the new (agriculture) secretary will have to put a lot of focus on," Veneman said.

Vetter, chief ag negotiator from 2014 to January 2017, also said the climate will be a top priority for the entire Biden administration and is a issue in which the next ag secretary can play an important role.

Supporting ag research at USDA also should be a top goal for the Biden administration, Vetter said.

"Research really is the jewel and backbone of the USDA," she said.

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