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Op-ed USDA

On June 1st, the a set of bold measures to strengthen the resiliency of our food system in the face of shocks like COVID-19, extreme weather induced by climate disaster, or the spike in fuel prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is a historic and exciting announcement, demonstrating the agency’s shift towards adopting holistic, transformational, and regional food systems planning with a special focus on justice and resiliency—components which for decades food systems experts and activists have called for from the nation’s food system leaders. To address conventional agriculture’s high input-dependence and populationally remote settings, the USDA will invest $300M into helping farmers transition to Organic practices and $75M to support urban agriculture. More schoolchildren, SNAP-dependent families, and seniors will see improved access to organic fresh vegetables by connecting families directly with farmers and treating food as sustentive medicine not dangerous calories. Millions are being put into regional food business centers, food waste reduction programs and opportunities to establish cooperative, value-added processing for small and midsized producers. Indeed, the USDA is showing that it recognizes the ills of letting industry consolidate sectors by investing $400M to bring back independent meat processing facilities.
While the announcement is much welcomed there remain critical gaps in various sectors. Transportation is largely unaddressed, a sector responsible for about a tenth of emissions in the food sector and more than one fourth in general (the largest share). Today, many of us get in our cars to go to the grocery stores, freight trucks pass us by on the freeway, and farmers drive vans loaded with produce hundreds of miles to farmers markets. The IPCC has warned we must rapidly transition off a dependence on fossil fuels; and electrification won’t solve it alone. By supporting urban agriculture and making farming familiar in a regional food system, however, much of this strain can be addressed. Consider the humble bicycle. Each Saturday this past year, using a bike trailer borrowed from the food bank parking lot, I biked anywhere from 30lbs to 140lbs through the hilly streets of Seattle delivering groceries to food insecure and mobility impaired households. We also picked up food waste from grocery stores and transported meals and groceries to nearby “community fridges.” These impromptu food hubs were oriented towards food insecure households, yet easily could be adapted to the market.
Second, while organic practices have often lower negative impacts on environmental health, the department is long overdue to sincerely fund agroecological, no-till, regenerative agriculture and other “carbon smart” farming techniques.
Typically an agency's approach towards handling these gaps is to develop programs—and indeed USDA programs addressing these concerns often already exist. Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for example is one of the USDAs largest programs to reduce farmer’s strain on the environment and fund farmers experimenting with or transitioning to agroecological practices. But what’s needed in tandem is larger structural economic and social changes: subsidies and start-up relief are just stop-gaps for a broader need of granting economic value back to agroecological farming—in a conscious manner that avoids further marginalizing the poor. Today, commodity crops earn a third of the cost to make them, but the USDA has not wielded its significant political power to change this, instead opting to support farmers through more programs.
It’s a consideration that mirrors the debate in global health between “selective primary healthcare” of multilateral aid agencies versus the “primary healthcare” mantra established in Alma Ata, the USDA can choose to make programs or fight for structural change. But in fact it is not a dichotomy, programs are a critical component of change.
In the 2023 Farm Bill, we can inscribe the USDA’s "Framework for Shoring Up the Food Supply Chain and Transforming the Food System to Be Fairer, More Competitive, More Resilient,” by adopting transformational economic policies to address corporate consolidation and market failures. Then the USDA’s programs can realize these transformations.

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