By Elizabeth Reilly, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.
In her remarks to a room full of agriculture advocates and change agents, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) emphasized that “farmers are leading the way” in building a more sustainable food system. There is no one more emblematic of that statement than Congresswoman Pingree herself. As both a certified organic farmer and member of Congress, she’s long been at the forefront of food systems change.
Congresswoman Pingree was one of several leaders who met with my sustainable food systems graduate cohort during our policy immersion in Washington, DC in May 2023. As a testament to Congresswoman Pingree’s dedication to a better future of food, she’s met with Arizona State University (ASU) students every year since the graduate program’s inception (you can read about past visits here, here and here). Her reflections on her journey in public service, policy priorities and bipartisan approach to policymaking energized and inspired my fellow students for the work ahead.
Leading by example
Congresswoman Pingree shared that when she was elected to the House of Representatives, her original passion area was lowering the price of prescription drugs. She quickly learned that she wasn’t alone in this and that her office would be more impactful if she explored other interest areas. This brought her back to her roots in farming. Over the years, she has worked tirelessly to strengthen local food systems, increase organic research and production, improve soil health, reduce food loss and waste and elevate “ambitious but achievable” solutions for agriculture’s role in nutrition and climate change.
Because of the “food systems” focus she brings to her work, Congresswoman Pingree has been a leader in recognizing the links between climate change and agriculture and in offering holistic solutions. For example, her sweeping Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), which was reintroduced in March 2023, seeks to ensure the United States achieves net zero agriculture emissions by 2040. The bill calls for six farmer-led and science-based solutions. Congresswoman Pingree is advocating for the integration of ARA priorities into the Farm Bill, which is up for reauthorization. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee and House Agriculture Committee, she has a powerful platform to help shape the nation’s most influential piece food and farming legislation.
Elevating organic agriculture
A self-described “back-to-the-lander,” Congresswoman Pingree has relied on organic farming methods on her own farm since the 1970s. She noted, “For me, organic agriculture is second nature.” This first-hand experience made her an early voice for organic agriculture in Congress and has permeated her political priorities. This is evidenced by her successful inclusion of provisions that strengthen organic food production within the 2018 Farm Bill and her introduction of bills like the Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research Act and the Local FARMS Act. It’s also demonstrated in her support of USDA efforts like the Strengthening Organic Enforcement final rule and Organic Transition Initiative, among others.
Finding common ground
Recognizing that agriculture touches everything – rural issues, housing, nutrition and more – Congresswoman Pingree also emphasized that there are shared interests to be found with policymakers across the aisle. In her remarks, she noted that agriculture policy has a long legacy of being bipartisan. She described how she pursues bipartisan bills in two ways – by nurturing personal relationships and leaning into areas of common ground. By doing so, she’s opened the doors to unexpected opportunities for partnership.
A recent example of her bipartisan efforts is the re-launch of Congress’ first-ever Bipartisan Food Recovery Caucus. She co-founded the Caucus alongside Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-WA). She joked that food waste is a notable bipartisan issue because, “Whose grandmother didn’t say, ‘Don’t waste your food!’?” She successfully pushed for the inclusion of major food waste efforts in the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill as well.
As Congress works to reauthorize the Farm Bill, the challenges of climate change, nutrition, rural development and more loom large. Congresswoman Pingree will continue to be a trusted, forward-looking voice on these pressing issues. In both her remarks to students and her legislative track record, it is clear that her success lies in her values-driven leadership, as well as her passion for and first-hand knowledge of farming and food systems. ASU students – and the nation – benefit from her determination to transform how we farm and feed the country.
This blog is part of a series from the May 2023 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.