The future of the U.S. food system will require diversity in leadership, creativity, and more resilient rural communities, according to Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University.
In recent weeks Merrigan, who previously served as Deputy Director of Agriculture under the Obama administration, has been speaking with farmers across the United States to learn about the most pressing agricultural issues.
She finds that one of the most common concerns is the need to support young farmers. “It’s not farm subsidies, it’s not ethanol…it’s really about young people. How do we get young people on the land?” Merrigan tells Food Tank. She believes that supporting these young voices can help to make rural regions more vibrant and resilient.
Merrigan argues that diversity in leadership can help encourage more young people of all backgrounds to enter the farming sector.
Pointing out that the barrier of entry is often too great for new farmers, she also highlights the important role government programs can play.
In some states, for example, governments are purchasing land and making it accessible to young people who couldn’t afford farmland on their own. “Government can do all kinds of important and creative things, but it requires consensus and a lot of hard work,” Merrigan tells Food Tank.
As new solutions are introduced, Merrigan argues that producers and governments cannot emphasize efficiency alone. “We’ve been worshipping at the altar of efficiency, but we need to be worshipping at the altar of resiliency,” Merrigan tells Food Tank.
Merrigan also believes that these ongoing discussions about the food system must center equity. “There’s a lot of history in this country around people whose lands were taken. When we’re thinking about a new vision for young people on the land, we should take those issues into account,” she says.
As Merrigan thinks about the future of the country’s food system, she is also looking to the incoming administration and the changes that will come at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Merrigan hopes that the new administration will provide an opportunity to build back a department that lost so many employees during the previous four years. “We need to thank those federal workers and celebrate what they do,” she tells Food Tank.
She points out that 17 agencies make up the USDA, which is responsible for rural development, nutrition assistance programs, forest services, and more. She wants to see President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris shine a spotlight on these other aspects of the department and allow them to grow.
“There’s so much at the USDA that’s so important. I really hope that [the new administration] sees the expanse of USDA programs and prioritizes rural America,” Merrigan tells Food Tank. “I think they know that, and I think they will.”
Listen to the full conversation with Merrigan below.
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