9 agricultural policy issues to watch in 2021

A new government may look familiar to the agriculture industry.

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(Benjamin Earwicker | Freeimages.com)
(Benjamin Earwicker | Freeimages.com)

A new government may look familiar to the agriculture industry.

As part of the virtual National Turkey Federation 2021 Annual Convention, Carla Tieman, senior vice president at The Russell Group in Washington, shared her outlook for Washington after the 2020 election.

Thieman was formerly the chief of staff for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, before joining The Russell Group in 2017. She spoke on February 10, 2021.

How has Washington changed

In January 2021, after an election unlike any in recent U.S. history, President Joe Biden was sworn into office with a Congress aligned to his party. However, the Democratic Party owns a slim majority in both the House and Senate. The new administration will use executive orders and other actions to enact its agenda, but it will be forced to work across the aisle in Congress to pass legislation.

The new government

In Congress, the most important committees for agriculture in Washington are seeing departures and arrivals which will shift their view. In both the House of Representatives and the Senate, there will be grater geographic diversity with more lawmakers from the West and the Northeast rather than the traditional South and Midwestern representation. She said new viewpoints on those committees can be beneficial toward crafting policy.

The Biden Administration chose Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture from 2009 to 2017, to lead the department once again. Tieman said he is a steady hand and a known entity that brings certainty and familiarity to a time where many are dealing with the upheaval of the pandemic and working away from the capitol and its offices, too.

Elsewhere, she advised animal agriculture to monitor the Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary. This committee will now likely take up more antitrust, competition and consolidation issues. The livestock sector may be scrutinized by this committee under these pretenses. The amount of attention the meat processing industry received during the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic will put agriculture on review here, too.

The judiciary committee will also likely review immigration policies. Hope springs eternal for a new Congress to take action on immigration, and there are signs there will be actions out of this government.

Agriculture in Washington

Overall, several policy areas affecting agriculture will be a priority for the president and his party:

  1. Climate: The government will want to take action to address climate change. Agriculture will need to be part of the solution.
  2. Equity and equality: Tieman said the USDA will need to work on addressing alleged historical and systemic discrimination in the treatment of minority and women farmers.
  3. COVID-19: COVID-19 lead to closures of processing plants across species and brought tremendous media attention the food supply chain and specifically integrated animal agriculture companies. She said integrators need to be better prepared to deal with future supply chain issues. The pandemic highlighted existed weaknesses which should be addressed for the sustainability and public trust of the industry. Lawmakers may scrutinize how the industry operates in the aftermath of the pandemic. As part of an examination of the meat processing industry, the issue of line speeds will likely come up.
  4. Industry consolidation: The USDA won’t be looking to break up big companies, Thieman said, but it will be looking to encourage competition in the agricultural industry and support smaller, local operations.
  5. Packers & Stockyards: The Packers & Stockyards Act enforcement and the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration is always important to the industry, but the poultry industry does likely not need to be concerned with the current government. However, there is always a possibility of reform or review of these policies concerning integrated poultry companies.
  6. Antibiotics: With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing up the use of antibiotics in human medicine, expect lawmakers to double down on moves to reduce antibiotic usage in animal agriculture both in the U.S. and in global organizations like the World Health Organization.
  7. Zoonotic disease: COVID-19’s association to zoonosis will likely create a greater focus on zoonotic disease in human health, which could concern the USDA and agriculture’s biosecurity infrastructure.
  8. Immigration: The new administration is working to undo the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and enact their own. A more liberal policy could benefit processors.
  9. Worker safety: COVID-19 elevated this issue to an area of possible review, as well.
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