Transforming the Food System with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree

By Kana Miller, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student

A window of opportunity. The power of convening. Transforming the food system.  

Throughout our immersive, we heard from a diverse array of speakers, representing various facets of the food system. From the Agricultural Marketing Service and Agricultural Research Service within the USDA and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to NGO and food industry leaders, these three messages were repeated. 

Across the board, we were told how the COVID-19 pandemic and change in administration has created a new window of opportunity; a tipping point for the entire country and specifically for food and agriculture policy. Many issues can no longer be ignored. While the pandemic has caused significant loss and hardship, we’ve also seen a shift in perspective and priorities for a brighter future. 

We listened as the power of convening was described as a salient and strategic policy tactic. When used successfully, convening leads to stronger coalitions, relationships built on trust, increased bipartisanship, and more impactful policy decisions. 

We were inspired by the USDA’s new charge to transform America’s food system, creating greater resiliency, and increasing our collective preparedness as we face the climate crisis. 

The power of these messages was strongly conveyed and put into practice by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who spoke to us about her many priorities for food and agricultural policy, most notably outlined in the Agriculture Resilience Act. Congresswoman Pingree isn’t afraid to be bold and fight against the odds. As Maine’s 1st Congressional District Representative, Chellie Pingree is the first woman elected to Congress from that District. She can easily relate to the farm life as an owner of an organic agritourism farm. Congresswoman Pingree is a seasoned policymaker, having served as a member of the Maine Senate, prior to being elected to the U.S. House. She also served as the National President and CEO of Common Cause, a non-partisan citizen activist group that works to hold elected officials accountable and ensure citizens' voices are heard. 

The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) was introduced into the House in February of 2020. Right before life was flipped upside by the pandemic and under an administration with differing priorities from those laid out in the bill. This did not stop Congresswoman Pingree from advocating for better federal policy in support of American agriculture. It seems her patience was worth it, as she described reaching a critical “tipping point for agriculture policy”. She explained that the Biden-Harris Administration is moving forward on increasing climate resiliency and agriculture has a big role to play in that. Congresswoman Pingree shared with us the six main goals of the ARA and the strategy behind this comprehensive and incredibly timely legislation.

In order to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in U.S. agriculture by the year 2040, the ARA proposes science based, agriculture-driven solutions in six key policy areas:

Increasing investments in agricultural research and extension; USDA’s Regional Climate Hubs, and supporting the creation of a Sustainable Agriculture and Food Resilience Initiative; 

Improving soil health practices by creating new incentives for farmers to join carbon markets and increasing on-farm carbon sequestering practices; 

Protecting existing farmland by increasing funding for farm conservation easements and amending current tax code to benefit conservation easements, continuing investments in the Local Agricultural Market Program;

Supporting pasture-based livestock systems to increase farm viability with diversified manure management solutions that help lower carbon footprints; 

Boosting investments in on-farm energy initiatives by increasing funding for the Rural Energy for America Program, instituting USDA research directed at dual-use renewable energy with crop or livestock systems and creating greater technical assistance to farmers;

Reducing food waste by standardizing food date labeling, increasing school food recovery programs, and increasing support for food waste-to-energy programs. 

This “tipping point” for pushing innovative agriculture policy isn’t solely reliant on the current administration, it also includes the 2023 Farm Bill. Congresswoman Pingree explained how she wrote the ARA to be strategic; she doesn’t intend for the bill to pass as is. Rather, the bill’s language provides a foundation for Farm Bill negotiations. This type of strategic legislation is known as a marker bill, which helps legislators introduce key policy issues and build bipartisan support, intended for a larger bill. The Congresswoman’s use of this strategy harnessed the power of convening, by bringing voices together from across the agricultural sector, in the name of building a more resilient food system. Our time with Congresswoman Pingree left me feeling inspired, encouraged, and eager for Farm Bill negotiations to begin. Thank you to Congresswoman Pingree, Katie Bergh, and Rhiannon Hampson for taking the time to meet with us and for your dedication to advocate for American sustainable agriculture.

This blog is part of a series from the July 2021 Washington D.C. Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students met with federal food and agriculture-focused officials at USDA, the White House and other agencies, Congressional leadership, industry leaders and other important policy stakeholders.