Six months into the Biden Administration, Washington claims a mixed scorecard of fulfilling the promises made during the 2020 campaign. Let’s take a look at some of the food and ag-related hits and misses recorded so far.
It’s been a hectic half-year for Congress and the new Biden Administration, with enormous amounts of time and energy devoted to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the largest economic stimulus bill ever passed, the infamous January 6 attack on the Capitol, comprehensive infrastructure legislation, and more.
But behind the scenes of these high-profile issues, what has been done related to our food and agricultural system? What does the scorecard show for efforts to fulfill the promises and pledges made during the 2020 campaign for farmers and ranchers and everyone else along the chain from dirt to dinner?
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Crop Programs and Disaster Assistance
The campaign theme:
A greater role for government in helping all farmers and ranchers, especially during difficult times and circumstances
Both the Biden Administration and Congress have focused on providing disaster relief for farmers and ranchers plagued by drought and severe weather events. Updates to long-standing crop programs in the 2018 Farm Bill allowed legislators and administrators to focus on expanding many of the economic protections available to producers.
The Department of Agriculture has relaxed some bureaucratic requirements, eased some terms and conditions, and expanded funding where possible for a variety of disaster programs, including crop insurance.
Before leaving town for the August recess, the House Agriculture Committee voted to add $8.5 billion in disaster aid for 2020 and 2021 disasters through the Wildfire Hurricane Indemnity Program (WHIP). In the Senate, bipartisan legislation has been introduced to allow early haying under the Conservation Reserve Program. Another bill before the Senate Agriculture Committee would offer loan forgiveness and other economic aid for producers.
Compared to the trillions of dollars and weeks of negotiation represented in Covid and infrastructure initiatives, it may not sound like all that much. But to rural America, it’s a significant potential for help.
Overall: 👍 👍 👍
Both Congress and the Administration have made help for producers amid exceptional weather circumstances a top priority – perhaps consuming a portion of the political energy needed to fulfill other campaign pledges and priorities. Much more remains to be done to finalize some legislative initiatives, but the often-slow wheels of the legislative process are in motion.
The campaign theme:
U.S. agriculture has a major role to play in dealing with global climate change, and it’s time for our food and agricultural policies and programs to take on a more aggressive role in tackling the problem
With many U.S. farmers and ranchers facing extreme conditions right now, climate change policies seem to have taken a bit of a back seat to emergency relief efforts. But the broad issue of climate change – and in particular the farm sector’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions – remains an active interest in the Biden Administration and on Capitol Hill.
Perhaps most significantly, the Senate voted 92-8 to pass the Growing Climate Solutions Act, authorizing the Department of Agriculture to establish a Voluntary Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program. That’s a long-winded name for a critical first step: to create a marketplace for environmental credits for farmers and others willing to engage in sustainable land-use practices that advance climate-change goals. Similar legislation is pending in the House of Representatives, with 50 bipartisan co-sponsors.
Overall: 👍 👍
Talk is cheap, especially in the heat of a political campaign, but passage of the Senate bill represents a concrete first step in transforming talk into action. Attention now shifts to the House for completion of the job.
The White House, meanwhile, continues to focus on non-ag accomplishments through executive orders and presidential memoranda, such as rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as the appointment of a Presidential Envoy for Climate and creation of an Office of Climate Change Support within the State Department.
Rural Economic Revitalization
The campaign theme:
Make the federal government a more active partner in a comprehensive effort to revitalize the rural economy
The promise to help rural communities is nothing new to American politics. But the sheer breadth of the Biden Administration’s proposed actions is noteworthy nonetheless and includes a vast array of initiatives, such as:
- Added funding for credit in promoting new and growing businesses in rural areas, delivered equitably
- Extended broadband and wireless access
- More primary health providers and money for health centers
- Additional emphasis on renewable energy and green energy jobs
- Improvements to infrastructure and transportation
- Expanded conservation programs
- Better access to healthy foods
It all sounds great. But how is it all delivered? It begins with more funding for existing programs and a different mindset among those charged with administering them.
But the real accomplishment since Inauguration Day in this area undoubtedly is the development of a massive bipartisan infrastructure deal – a 2,702-page piece of legislation spending roughly one trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000.00…that’s a lot of zeroes). The massive bill still requires extensive additional Congressional attention before going to President Biden for signature. But the bipartisan agreement is a huge political achievement.
The White House calls it “a generational investment in rural America.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack notes the far-reaching effects of the bill on rural areas, including roads, bridges, wastewater systems, broadband expansion, telemedicine and tele-education, power system improvements, environmental clean-up, rail expansion, and many of the other areas touched upon during the 2020 campaign.
Overall: 👍 👍 👍 👍
Politics aside, this agreement represents an enormous commitment to improvements across America, and nowhere more so than rural America. The details of how this massive piece of legislation is enacted remain to be seen. But its intent is clear: invest in America, nowhere more so than our rural areas.
Equity and Social Justice
The campaign theme:
Past farm policies and programs too often have been skewed to the disadvantage of certain groups, notably minority farmers and smaller operators. Social justice demands a new, more equitable approach – and remediation of past injustices.
Both the Biden Administration and the Congressional agriculture committees have made this subject a centerpiece of hearings and public outreach efforts. But the flagship initiative in fulfilling this promise has been an element of the American Rescue Plan enacted in March in response to the Covid pandemic.
The $1.9-trillion Plan includes a $4 billion fund for debt-relief payments for “socially disadvantaged” farmers. This includes Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian American farmers who are deemed to have been discriminated against in past farm programs and policies, representing roughly 3.3 percent of U.S. food producers, according to the 2017 Census. Additionally, another $1 billion would go for education, training, outreach programs, grants and loans helping improve land access for disadvantaged farmers.
Initial payments for roughly 13,000 qualifying farmers were scheduled to go out this summer. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack notes the payments will cover the entirety of outstanding loans, plus an additional 20 percent of the loan as a cash payment to deal with the tax consequences of the loan forgiveness. Legal challenges in federal court alleging discrimination are pending, and several banks have expressed concern over the damages they might face as a result of early loan pay-offs.
Overall: 👍 👍 👍
If spending is any measure of success in fulfilling a campaign pledge, this subject earns several thumbs up. What remains to be seen is the effectiveness of the effort in expanding the number of minority farmers from the present levels.
The campaign theme:
Trade is critical to the economic interests of U.S. farmers, ranchers, and consumers. It’s time to stop the combative, go-it-alone approach we’ve used in recent years and get back to a more collaborative, less confrontational approach that will expand our trade opportunities.
The elephant in the room for this campaign promise obviously was trade relations with China, our largest foreign customer for U.S. food and agricultural products, and the most important player in international trade. A new Administration and a new Congressional leadership favored a strong focus on rebuilding relations with China; not through overt confrontation, but traditional diplomacy.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the promised bright future. Relations with China have remained frosty. Tensions over human rights, cyberpiracy, intellectual property rights, military aggressiveness, and a host of other issues made it difficult to define what a ‘traditional diplomatic approach’ actually means. After six months, we’re still waiting to see the comprehensive strategy for U.S.-China relations promised by the Biden Administration.
Instead, we see aggressive actions to re-introduce the United States as an active participant in various international organizations and initiatives. The United States rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and has promoted extensive engagement in international Covid relief and vaccination efforts. Reduced or ended military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq also have been major areas of international focus.
Not by accident, the Biden Administration launched efforts to work with Capitol Hill in promoting expanded trade with Africa, where China has become the continent’s leading trade partner and leading lending source.
Fulfilling this campaign pledge remains very much incomplete. Until the promised review of the long-term U.S. strategy for relations with China is completed, let’s hope the pragmatic approach taken by both sides on agricultural trade continues. China needs the food we produce, and our farmers and ranchers deserve the economic returns that the Chinese market offers.
The campaign theme:
Farmers and ranchers increasingly have problems finding enough workers. We need a comprehensive approach to the problem that promotes a bigger pool of qualified labor and clarifies the role of migrant laborers.
Purdue University’s AGBarometer captures the problem very effectively. Roughly two-thirds of farmers responding to their survey said they face “some” or “a lot of difficulty” in hiring adequate labor. That’s up from less than a third of respondents the previous year. To add to the problem, the inability to find enough help extends beyond the farm gate all the way to restaurants, food retailers, farm equipment mechanics, truck drivers – and more.
The reasons behind the difficulty run the gamut. Historically low wages and government pandemic assistance that sometimes pays more to stay at home than to work. Uncertainty over changing approaches to immigration policies and practices, and requirements for the green cards needed by non-US citizens.
More attractive off-farm job opportunities, especially as the post-Covid economy recovers. Even simple fear of the Covid virus.
So far in 2021, most attention has focused on the controversial situation at America’s southern border and the Biden Administration’s proposed immigration legislation, which would allow large numbers of those living illegally in the United States to have green-card status and subsequently gain citizenship. However, that legislation does not deal with the issue of “guest workers” and permission to stay for extended periods.
Given the focus on Covid relief and infrastructure, both Congress and the Biden Administration may be extended some forgiveness for apparently making this a back-burner issue. But it remains an important problem not just for farmers and ranchers but also for the entire food chain – and arguably our entire economy.
Consolidation and Competition
The campaign theme:
More needs to be done to protect the little guy in our economic system, and that means a more aggressive approach to dealing with food industry consolidation and competition
The more liberal elements of the Biden Administration make no secret of their suspicion of organizations that grow to become what they consider “too big and too powerful.” That attitude prompted a promise to take a much tougher line on bigger mergers and acquisitions, as well as levels of competition.
So it came as no surprise President Biden in June issued a far-reaching executive order with 72 initiatives by more than a dozen federal agencies to take on “pressing competition problems across our economy.” Enforcement efforts should focus on the labor markets, agricultural markets, healthcare markets, and the tech sector, he instructed.
One of the primary anticipated targets of this order is expected to be the U.S. meat industry, notably the meat processing industry. Legislators on Capitol Hill joined the fray by calling for a special investigator at the Department of Agriculture to look into antitrust issues in the industry.
Overall: 👍 👍
Once again in politics, if the objective is to generate headlines and gain attention, 2021 has been a good year in fulfilling this particular campaign pledge. But it remains far less certain where the effort will actually lead.
Consolidation and growth have been hallmarks of the food and agriculture sector for decades, and the meat industry has been a prime target for critics alleging a lack of producer power in the buyer-seller relationship. Until we see some concrete actions, this must remain a promise in progress.
The Bottom Line
Congress and the Biden Administration earn generally good marks on living up to their campaign promises, notably on the pledge to help revitalize rural America, and to provide financial compensation for perceived inequitable application of farm policies and programs. Climate change remains a work in progress, and the jury remains out on other key initatives, notably on the agricultural trade front and lingering labor problems. The year-end report card may provide a better guide to just how closely political promises and policy results actually align.