With a new administration in the White House, new leadership of the U.S. House and Senate ag committees, and a returning secretary of agriculture, the members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture had much to discuss at the recent 2021 Winter Policy Conference.

From the Hill

Leading the news for members was the official confirmation of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Feb. 23. And while he was unable to address the organization, many of his stated priorities for the U.S. Department of Agriculture are also shared by NASDA members, including protecting the food supply chain, advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in agriculture, building and maintaining markets that advance local and rural economies and promoting science-based solutions to climate challenges.

NASDA members heard from the leadership of both the U.S. House and Senate ag committees on policy priorities that will be on the docket in the 117th Congress. Primary on everyone’s minds is agriculture’s role in a post-pandemic economy and a future economy that addresses climate change.

Rep. GT Thompson, R-PA, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, told members that one of his priorities is to ensure that any climate smart programs that come from Congress are public-private partnerships written with the farmer in mind. Agriculture has the potential to be a major carbon bank, he said, and that could offset about 11% of the carbon emissions from energy production. But, whatever is created must have the farmer’s interest in mind, he added.

To improve agriculture’s use of technology, Thompson and Chairman Rep. David Scott, D-GA, stated that it’s time to improve rural infrastructure and work on filling the digital divide by expanding rural broadband access. Much like bringing electricity to rural Americans 90 years ago required government assistance, it’s likely expanding broadband will as well, they said.

Securing food for Americans

Coming out of the pandemic and the food insecurities that it uncovered, NASDA members voted to adopt policy to address hunger and food insecurity in the nation.

“We are making a promise to continue upholding our duty to grow and enhance American agriculture to nourish people and communities,” NASDA President Ryan Quarles said. “State departments of agriculture and our farm families have a special role to play in feeding a hungry nation.” To help in fulfilling this mission, NASDA released a new Food Security Toolkit to help states learn from the successes of other states’ food security wins and give them the resources to copy the efforts at home.

Other policies adopted by the membership were aimed at improving essential worker safety and investment in local and regional food. These policies are one way to respond to the supply chain vulnerabilities that COVID-19 revealed at the height of the 2020 pandemic.

The new policies propose many methods to getting to the goal, but all specify that small- to medium-size food businesses are a critical part of improving the resiliency of the food system to weather major impacts to one part of the chain or another.

“While our current system has reached efficiency heights only dreamed of by previous generations, today’s market unintentionally creates challenges for small and local food producers, processors and distributors,” NASDA CEO Barb Glenn said. “Significant investments are needed to protect the diversity of our production facilities and their market access.”

NASDA policy calls for federal policies that support new and expanded local and regional processing facilities, expanding federal meat and poultry processing facility grants to state inspected facilities, and supports interagency efforts to secure PPE and COVID-19 vaccines for agricultural and food workers so that they can be safe and maintain an uninterrupted food supply.

“Our food system depends first on the well-being of the people who work each day to grow, harvest, process, pack and transport our food,” Glenn said.

NASDA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit of elected and appointed commissioners, secretaries and directors of the departments of ag in all 50 states and four U.S. territories.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at journal@hpj.com.

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