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USDA should push for rural broadband, worker safety, say former ag secretaries

While the pandemic and climate change will be at the top of the agenda in the Biden administration, the USDA should pursue full access to broadband service in rural America, said three former agriculture secretaries on Tuesday. One of them, Mike Espy, also said the USDA should refuse to buy products from meat processors who fail to protect workers from the coronavirus.

The USDA has a broad portfolio, from SNAP and school lunch to farm subsidies, ag research, meat safety, and the national forests. “There are 19 No. 1 jobs” as agriculture secretary, said Dan Glickman, who served during the Clinton era. Besides oversight of the fourth-largest department by budget, at around $150 billion a year, the agriculture secretary has to compete for the president’s attention and deal with lawmakers. “Many people believe the Agriculture Department is really the congressionally run and owned department, as compared with other departments.”

Former secretaries Espy, Glickman, and Ann Veneman discussed the challenges facing the USDA in the coming years during a Farm Foundation webinar. President-elect Biden had yet to announce his nominee for agriculture secretary. Veneman said the new administration, in light of rising hunger due to COVID-19, “needs to…look at our (legal) authorities — How do we get more people onto SNAP so that less people are standing in lines at the food banks?”

“This whole issue of rural broadband, everybody talks about (it), but nothing seems to happen,” said Dan Glickman, who called for a project, similar to building the interstate highway system, to make high-speed internet service available nationwide as soon as possible. The pandemic, by shifting school and work online, amplified the need for service everywhere, he said. “There are big areas of urban America that don’t have broadband but it impacts rural America much more… It’s the best thing we can do for rural development.” Veneman and Espy also urged expansion of rural broadband.

Rural Americans are much less likely than urban residents to have broadband service at home or to use a computer or smart phone, according to a Pew Research Center report in 2019. Some 63% of rural adults said they had broadband at home, compared with 79% of city dwellers. Broadband also tends to run at slower speeds in rural areas than in urban areas.

The FCC allocated $9.2 billion to 180 bidders on Monday to deploy high-speed internet to 5.2 million unserved homes and businesses in 49 states and the Northern Mariana Islands over the next decade. Charter Communications would bring service to 1.05 million of the locations. “This auction was the single largest step ever taken to bridge the digital divide,” said FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

Espy said the USDA could mandate adoption by meat processors of guidelines, such as those written earlier this year by the CDC, to reduce the risk to workers of exposure to the coronavirus, with the threat of being barred as federal suppliers if they do not comply. If companies are “reticent” about COVID-19 protections, said Espy, “I think they are going to be sorry about doing that.”

All three of the former secretaries said agriculture could play a prominent role in the mitigation of climate change in the Biden administration. Farm groups and food retailers say climate programs should be voluntary, based on free-market influences, such as potential income from carbon sequestration, and encouraged by tax credits. Darci Vetter, chief U.S. agricultural negotiator during the Obama years, said the USDA probably would look at all of its programs as “climate and ...,” such as “climate and rural development” or “climate and infrastructure.”

As for the upcoming 2023 farm bill, it “is not going to be much different than what we have now,” said Espy. Asked about the Trump administration’s decision to relocate two USDA research agencies on short notice to Kansas City, Glickman said, “I’m not sure I would have made that decision as secretary. I don’t think so.”

Some organizational changes may be warranted at the USDA, said Veneman. Three agriculture undersecretaries, for natural resources, meat safety, and public nutrition, have a single agency in their charge, suggesting redundancy of command. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue eliminated the post of undersecretary for rural development early in his tenure. “I would take another look at that,” said Veneman.

To watch a video of the Farm Foundation forum, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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