What Will a Biden Presidency Mean for Food and Agriculture Policy?

by Ryan Nebeker

Published: 11/10/20, Last updated: 12/11/20

Joe Biden’s victory last week prompted many questions of “what’s next?” in nearly every corner of American politics, and food and agriculture are no exception. Four years of the Trump administration dramatically reshaped food and farming across the country, weakening protections for workers and the environment while upending traditional trade relationships and pumping record-breaking aid payments to farmers. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic downturn continue, food and farm policy takes on even greater importance. While the pandemic created some of these issues, like the dramatic explosion in hunger across the country, it also highlighted pre-existing issues that have been affecting farmers and the food system for some time.

As Biden’s inauguration approaches, we explore how a Biden presidency could address some of the major issues facing farmers, and how this could impact sustainable agriculture in the United States.


Trade and Aid

Farmers across the country lost sales from the Trump administration’s aggressive approach to trade policy. The trade war with China, which started when the administration enacted tariffs on Chinese industrial imports, quickly widened to include a host of agricultural products, especially soy. As a result, American farmers have lost billions in sales since 2018, placing more pressure on already strained farm finances. And while the administration has doled out billions in direct payments to affected farmers, the funds went disproportionately to large farms in the South, ending up in the hands of a few large corporations and doing little to help the small family farms that are integral to a sustainable food system.

This divide in aid spending increased as the coronavirus pandemic cut further into strained farm finances. Relief for the COVID-19-related losses added a record-breaking $46 billion in direct payments to farmers, bringing the same concerns about uneven and politically-motivated distribution. Although the payments and other aid programs have helped some farms stay afloat, they’ve become a primary income stream for many farms, worrying economists who say the approach is dangerously unsustainable: withdrawing the payments could pitch farms into bankruptcy, but prolonging them in the long term is unfeasible.

Biden’s approach to trade and payments is still unclear. He has clashed with Trump about trade payments in the past, correctly asserting that the money had come from American taxpayers rather than China, as Trump had claimed. Biden’s Plan for Rural America notes the inequities in payments so far, but he hasn’t committed to continuing or eliminating payments beyond a promise to “rescue and revitalize small business throughout rural America.” And although Biden has been critical of Trump’s trade wars in the past, the transition team intends to keep many of the outgoing administration’s tariffs in place.  Still, groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farmer’s lobbying group that represents mainly conventional farmers, signaled an eagerness to work with the president on expanding trade.

Conservation and the Environment

Outside the uncertainties of trade and direct payments, Biden’s plan for other aid to farmers is more clear. The Trump administration’s friendliness towards industrial agriculture was reflected in how they administered USDA conservation policy like the Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers for adopting good environmental practices. Trump’s USDA had changed the rules on the CSP and several other programs to favor large-scale producers, tilting the funding heavily in favor of factory farms in a way that critics said just further subsidized unsustainable production. Biden’s stated plans to expand and fortify the CSP and other conservation programs would mark a return to the soil health-promoting and climate change-fighting priorities established in earlier Farm Bills.

Other USDA programs were also dramatically reshaped during the Trump administration. By slashing budgets and moving the operations of the USDA’s Economic Research Service and the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture from DC to Kansas City, MO, Trump whittled down the USDA’s ability to accomplish its mission of supporting farmers. The moves caused hundreds of staff members to leave the agency, slowing down the already limited research support for sustainable agriculture.  Biden’s Plan for Rural America states that his administration will bolster funding for NIFA and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, though it’s unclear whether he will relocate the USDA’s operations to DC.

Biden’s other environmental priorities may require more legislative heft than reshuffling the USDA. The incoming administration has expressed support for carbon markets, expanding the ways that farmers can be paid to care for the environment. However, not all the administration’s climate proposals have equal support among environmental groups: Biden’s support for ethanol in particular is controversial among those who say it only encourages unsustainable industrial corn production.

Fighting Consolidation in Agriculture 

One of the Biden campaign’s central messages to farmers was a promise to level the playing field for farmers who are feeling the pinch of corporate consolidation. As agribusinesses consolidate, prices for seeds, chemicals and equipment have gone up, and the small businesses across rural America have closed. Farms themselves have been forced to close and consolidate, with little sympathy from the current administration: as Sonny Perdue expressed to a group of Wisconsin dairy farmers, “In America the big get bigger and the small go out.” Biden’s promise to support small farms and revitalize rural towns across America centers around fighting this consolidation.

The biggest area of concern is in meatpacking, where farmers and ranchers have complained that the few companies controlling the industry have worked together to drive down prices, particularly in light of the coronavirus crisis. Trump’s refusal to enforce existing antitrust legislation is a big part of the problem, with major USDA investigations resulting in only small changes to markets.  So far, Biden has pledged to enforce antitrust laws and do more to ensure farmers access to fair markets.

But can Biden effectively deliver on this promise? Biden’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture will indicate how tough he’s willing to be on corporate agriculture interests. So far, however, nothing signals a dramatic shift: his chief campaign advisor on rural issues, former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, is notoriously friendly to the big agribusiness interests that many farmers feel victimized by. But Democratic members of Congress like Minnesota’s Collin Petersen lost their seats in this election despite their friendly relationships with agribusiness and conventional farm lobbies, calling this strategy into question. This may ultimately result in a more progressive pick.

With two special elections that will determine the Senate yet to come, it’s hard to predict whether the Biden administration will have a broad congressional mandate to pursue the more ambitious parts of their agenda. Given the likely restructuring of Democratic Party Leadership, it’s also unclear exactly how far Congress will be willing to go on issues like passing the Green New Deal and other far-reaching climate legislation. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty lies in the midterm elections of 2022, which will determine priorities for 2023’s Farm Bill, the main legislation that determines food policy in the country. Even with the legislative uncertainty, however, the Biden administration should be able to accomplish much of their agenda through executive actions alone.


Top photo by @brainshot/Twenty20.

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