President-elect Joe Biden sent a risk-averse signal by choosing Tom Vilsack as his nominee for secretary of agriculture. Vilsack is a 70-year-old former Democratic governor of Iowa and has already done an eight-year stint as head of the Agriculture Department under President Barack Obama. Eminently experienced, qualified and confirmable, even if Republicans control the Senate, Vilsack would transition smoothly into a task that figures to involve mainly the drafting of a new five-year farm bill due in 2023.

But what if federal farm policy needs not caution and continuity but a shake-up? A rough summary of current policy would be: subsidize established producers of the traditional American diet, based on dairy, meat and sugar. (Also, cotton.) Yet consumers, who are also taxpayers, seem increasingly skeptical of these products’ nutritional benefits, at least relative to their costs in terms of obesity and other health issues. Agricultural production is a source of carbon emissions and other environmental harms. What’s more, federal farm subsidies are a nontrivial, but neglected, factor in economic inequality. To be sure, the nutritional aid that forms the bulk of the USDA’s annual budget — $117 billion out of a $140 billion total in fiscal 2019 — helps the poor. But production subsidies, which dominate the rest of the budget, disproportionately favor well-to-do farmers and agribusiness. The 2018 farm bill actually exacerbated this by making more-distant relatives — such as cousins, nephews and nieces — eligible to share in “family farm” subsidies, even if their participation is minimal.

The ostensible goal of farm policy, food security, has long since been achieved: Not even a global pandemic caused significant shortages, even if individual families did often struggle to afford what was available due to job losses or other economic hardship. Farms in the United States are so productive that exports are now a major source of their income — though President Donald Trump’s tariff war with China certainly put a crimp in sales to that country. Trump channeled $28 billion in offsetting aid to farmers; as of mid-2019, 70% of the money had gone to just 100,000 individuals, according to an NPR analysis. Buoyed by federal aid, both for the trade war and $5 billion related to coronavirus (a fifth of which went to just 1% of recipients, according to the Environmental Working Group), net farm income is set to reach $120 billion in fiscal 2020.

During the campaign, Biden’s positions on agriculture policy took the form, mainly, of promising rural America that the plans he had for the country as a whole — expanding health-care access, increased taxation of upper-income Americans, investing in clean energy — would benefit small towns and farm areas as well. It was admirable, in a sense, not to pander more directly. (Biden did pledge to promote ethanol, which is politically sacrosanct in Iowa.) And given the power congressional committees would ultimately exercise over the next farm bill anyway, it may have been politically realistic, too. Still, the result is that Biden reaches the White House having done little to create a mandate for the fresh thinking that U.S. farm policy needs.

The Washington Post

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