USDA lacks policy alignment for true food systems transformation

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

Many people have become rather disillusioned with the prospect of progress in American politics. I often feel the same way, but today, I’m here with more government praise than criticism — for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), out of all agencies.

Last week, the USDA announced a new Food System Transformation framework with a $2.2 billion investment across food value chains. This announcement follows the $1 billion investment in climate-smart commodity pilot projects announced in February and the $700 million pandemic relief grant package for small food, agriculture and fisheries businesses launched last fall. 

With all this movement, the agency is starting to chart a new course for sustainable, equitable and resilient food systems. 

Organic wins big 

Let’s look at the most recent announcement in more detail. The Food System Transformation framework will distribute support in four buckets:

  1. Production: $375 million for organic and urban agriculture.
  2. Processing: $900 million for workforce training, food safety certification for specialty crops and food supply chain infrastructure. (This comes in addition to previously announced $675 million in meat and poultry processing investments and $100 million for a supply chain loan guarantee program.)
  3. Distribution and aggregation: $550 million for regional food business centers, local farm-to-school commodity purchases and food loss and waste prevention. 
  4. Markets and consumers: $370 million for healthy food access and SNAP technology improvements. 

These are much-needed boosters for initiatives that social and environmental organizations have long supported. The new $300 million Organic Transition Initiative is a huge win, representing the single largest federal investment in organic agriculture to date. Everyone I talked to about the announcement, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Friends of the Earth and the National Young Farmers Coalition, applauded it. 

“The reality is that it’s still complicated to become certified organic. It’s a learning curve and producers don’t have many tools available,” said Allison Johnson, sustainable food policy advocate at NRDC. 

As long as the USDA continues to direct massive amounts of subsidies to prop up large-scale monoculture feed and biofuel production and big meat and dairy, we will not achieve the food system transformation we need.

The USDA’s new funding will provide financial support for organic transition periods and scale technical assistance, including via farmer-to-farmer mentoring programs. “Mentorship is really critical for better knowledge access and troubleshooting help, especially in areas where people are first adopters or are more isolated,” Johnson said. 

The USDA’s injection into federal procurement programs is another important lever for change. Nutrition programs such as school meals and food pantries could create important markets for small to mid-sized, organic and underserved farmers. The USDA holds the key to unlocking further impact through connecting programs. 

Vanessa Garcia Polanco, policy campaigns co-director at the National Young Farmers Coalition, is also excited about the $400 million investment in regional food business centers that will support small and mid-sized food and farm businesses with coordination, technical assistance and capacity building efforts. She noted that many people in underserved communities want to start businesses to strengthen local and regional food systems but need better support networks. The proposed regional business centers could make a difference. 

USDA is undermining its impact

I’m as surprised as anyone that the historically conservative USDA has started to become a sustainability outlier that’s pushing forward a climate and equity agenda. The investments are significant on their own and will hopefully catalyze additional private funding. But if the agency is serious about food systems change, it should see these initiatives only as the first step in an extensive policy alignment process. 

“The announcements are really excellent and an important step in the right direction,” Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, told me via email. “But as long as the USDA continues to direct massive amounts of subsidies to prop up large-scale monoculture feed and biofuel production and big meat and dairy via USDA Foods commodity purchases, loans, crop insurance, commodity and conservation payments, we will not achieve the food system transformation we need.” 

[Interested in learning how we can transform food systems to equitably and efficiently feed a more populous planet while conserving and regenerating the natural world? Check out the VERGE 22 Food Program, taking place in San Jose, CA, Oct. 25-28.]

The USDA’s recent investments in managing ongoing bird flu outbreaks that have already killed more than 37 million chickens and turkeys exemplify this problem. Since March, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack approved $793 million in emergency funding to support poultry and egg producers affected by the disease. These funds are used to kill and dispose of infected flocks, clean and eliminate the virus from farms and conduct surveillance and quarantine efforts. 

The emergency funds could have supported a transition away from factory farming into more decentralized, resilient and sustainable livestock, Hamerschlag told me. But this would have required much earlier action by the USDA, preventing the expansion of ever-larger industrial chicken farms. Supporting the egg and poultry industry now is essential for food security and public health, even though the emergency support perpetuates farms whose profits depend on unsustainable and inhumane practices. 

Hopefully, the agency recognizes the need for long-term policy alignment, in which its various programs and investments reinforce rather than undermine each other. The positive investments of its new Food Systems Transformation initiative will only take root if other public and private market pulls don’t outweigh them. I’ll be cheering for the uptake of true systems thinking and integrated policy planning at the USDA and its collaborating organizations.

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