We are getting many questions about President-Elect Biden’s transition priorities. Hygeia has no seat at the pertinent tables, but is in touch with many people that do.
What are the most important components of the transition that the Biden-Harris team are focused on now?
Easy answer. Combating the pandemic. Bucking up public health science. Getting an economic stimulus package through Congress. Cabinet and sub-cabinet personnel decisions.
What do you expect in USDA and ag-oriented EPA personnel decisions?
Competence. Experience in managing big organizations. Legal training or experience, since so much of the early actions through 2022 will be administrative in nature, regardless of what happens with the GA Senate races. Long and deep connections to the broader Biden team won’t hurt!
Who do you hope the Biden team will appoint?
People with a thick skin and the smarts to know when to keep their head down and feet moving. People who understand the politics, but also know that it is better to push directionally correct change that win popularity contests. My guess is that there will be so much going on right off the bat that bushels of constructive changes will be put in place, or get well underway, before the usual suspects can stir up a stink.
What else worries you on the people front?
Two things. The sheer magnitude of the new workforce needed to get the federal government firing on all eight cylinders again. The gov’t is deeply hollowed out, which opens a lot of new slots, but…
…what if few people are willing to move to DC and get into the mix, having witnessed the collateral damage done to the federal civil service by the Trump Administration. The Biden team cannot run the gov’t via Zoom.
What new policy initiatives and actions will be on USDA’s 100-day and first-term agenda?
Soil health and “Climate Smart Farming” investments and initiatives — large and small, near-term and big picture. Maybe even a US-China deal to (a) back off tariffs and normalize trade, while (b) investing billions on farming system changes worldwide to get more carbon in the soil. Such a diplomatic twofer could exploit ag’s potential to make it possible to reach aggressive climate change goals by 2030 and 2050. Success would be a very big deal, delivering on multiple campaign pledges.
Strong push for more R+D, including a new focus on: (1) farming systems that inherently lighten ag’s environmental footprint, (2) food labeling and nutrition programs that incrementally shift gov’t dollars and consumer purchase decisions away from sugar and salt-laden processed foods nearly devoid of real nutrition, and back to real food grown in healthy soils, with few if any pesticide residues.
And hopefully, the Biden Administration will find a way to get the entire federal government speaking clearly with one message across multiple challenges. Perhaps the most important is close to Hygeia’s heart — explaining how improved food quality and wiser, more disciplined dietary choices have the potential to do more for public health — and pandemic response — than anything else. Period.
Hygeia challenges anyone to say more on this front in seven words than Michael Pollan in Defense of Food — Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
What about EPA and pesticide regulation?
Big changes will come fast. Three widely used and important pesticides will likely go down in 2021. Low-hanging fruit will include reversing the many bad, anti-science decisions during Trump years.
Several high-risk pesticides are under intense pressure as a result of decades-long litigation; watch to see whether the DOJ and EPA in the Biden Administration tell US Courts of Appeal that they will not defend Trump Administration brand pesticide risk assessment (anti)science, nor object to Court ordered, or Court-brokered remedies to reduce high-risk pesticide uses.
And by the way, the major pesticide companies would like to see several of these old headaches go away, especially if they can figure out a way to cut the cord while also placing some limits on their liability exposure when and as harmed individuals seek their day in court.
Also expect the EPA to recover its spine in all-things measurement related. It will take time, but the EPA will surely begin putting out real data by 2022 that more fully accounts for the collateral damage stemming from conventionally managed row-crop farming systems.
Even more vulnerable — the sorry record of CAFOs in terms of the environment, the animals who spend their lives within them, and for the people who work at them or live nearby.
There are smart ways for the US to move on from the era of CAFOs and ethanol plants. Forging consensus around ways to do so will be among the next Administration’s trickiest political challenges.