Merrigan declares food action is outside Washington
Kathleen Merrigan, the first Agriculture deputy secretary in the Obama administration, has spent her entire career focused on Washington, but on Oct. 10 she declared that the action on food and agricultural policy is now in the private sector amidst entrepreneurs, corporations and community activists.
The current farm bill debate is a dull repetition of old ideas such as whether there should be payment limitations on farm programs, but “outside Washington the world is swirling, exploding with ideas,” Merrigan said as she launched a “Future of Food” series at the downtown Washington campus of Arizona State University, her new employer.
Merrigan, who earlier taught at Tufts University in Massachusetts and was executive director of sustainability at George Washington University after she was at USDA, is the executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems and the Kelly and Brian Swette professor of sustainable food systems at ASU, which is located in Tempe, outside Phoenix.
Merrigan will move to Arizona next year, but is spending one last year in Washington. An argument could be made that Merrigan is leaving town because the ideas for which she is best known — she wrote the organic agriculture standards act when she was a Senate aide and launched the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative at USDA — aren’t particularly popular with the Trump administration.
But she made a good case that the action in the food space is now outside the federal government, and indicated that she will be watching carefully to see when she can influence federal policy again.
“I am not saying goodbye, but I am saying that I am very excited and attracted to what is going on in the private sector. The private sector is now leading,” Merrigan said.
She also noted that in addition to her new university position, she is a partner in a venture capital firm focused on agricultural technology in Europe.
At ASU, Merrigan said, she will launch a new master of science degree in sustainable food systems and a leadership training program. Her dream, she said, is to be a former professor of a future secretary of agriculture.
The initial work of the Swette center, Merrigan said, will focus on five themes, she said.
The first is that there is a “tsunami” of new players. U.S. agriculture has always been dominated by white males, she said, but there are so many young people coming into agriculture, many of them female and minorities, that “the diversity battle is about to be won.”
But she noted there are not enough farmers to repopulate the farms and that there are more jobs available in agribusiness than there are graduates to take those jobs, while the federal government will need to replace its workforce.
“Even with the federal workforce being undermined by some of our leaders” and there are “wacky ideas such as moving NIFA (the National Institute of Food and Agriculture) and ERS (the Economic Research Service) out of town, young people will come in all shapes and sizes and have different views,” she said.
The focus on a new generation also means focusing on immigration reform, she said, since anyone who wants to follow the dietary guidelines on filling half a plate with fruits and vegetables would not be able to find that many fruits and vegetables, especially domestically grown.
Second, the trade war with China that is leaving soybean farmers without a major market may mean it is “time for a do-over” in agriculture.
That’s “crazy, maybe,” Merrigan said, “but I lived in Boston through the Big Dig,” a major highway project through the heart of the society that skeptics said could never be built, but that transformed the city.
“Is it time to ‘Big Dig’ American agriculture?” Merrigan asked.
Third, Merrigan said, she wil focus on “farm-driven cuisine.”
“Farm-to-table is yesterday’s news,” Merrigan said, quoting Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan and the Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center north of New York City.
Farm-driven cuisine means using foods that farmers have available, and a minimum of food waste, she said.
“A beet steak rather than a beef steak at the center of the plate” and “rotational risotto,” meaning a risotto based on what is available in season, she added.
The “Big Dig” plan, she said, also means focusing on urban farming and “ponics” — including hydroponics and aquaponics — even though some of her friends in organic agriculture claim organic food must be grown in soil.
And the “Big Dig” may also mean new ownership structures, with farmers bringing young farmers into their operations, she said. That would allow a “recoupling” of crop and livestock agriculture and “big will no longer be equated with bad” because there will be more sharing, she added.
Fourth, the center will focus on “true cost accounting,” which means taking into consideration the full cost of food, not just the price paid at the store. That accounting, she said, includes labeling of all kinds so that people know what is in their food.
Finally, Merrigan said, the center will acknowledge that business is in the lead. Arizona State University President Michael Crow has told her that professors are “knowledge entrepreneurs” who are to lead students to put their ideas into action, she said.
To follow up on her theme that there are opportunities for positive change, Merrigan introduced a panel of people she says are leading transformations: James Rogers, the CEO of Apeel Sciences, Alison Kopf of Agrilyst, and Brad Figel, the vice president of public affairs for Mars Inc., who is a a member of the governing board of the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance.
Rogers, who holds a Ph.D. in material science, explained how he had developed an extra peel that goes on fruit and slows down water loss and oxidation, reducing spoilage and the amount of food that ends up in landfills.
Rogers began with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop methods to deliver more food from farms in sub-Saharan Africa, but the products are now used in the United States, including on the avocados that were served at the center’s breakfast.
The methodology will also be used to allow asparagus to be shipped by sea freight instead of air freight from Peru to the United States, a change, he said is “the equivalent of (taking) 100,000 cars off the road.”
Kopf explained that Agrilyst is a web-based software platform that helps indoor farmers manage their crops and assemble data that helps make them more profitable.
She said she is an advocate of indoor farming because high-margin, short-cycle crops such as tomatoes and cannabis can be grown more quickly indoors, but she also acknowledged that indoor agriculture is cost-intensive.
Getting financing is difficult and the indoor farms are not eligible for most crop insurance, Kopf said, adding “there is an opportunity for government to play a part.”
Figel seemed like the outlier of the panel, since the Sustainable Food Policy Aliance that Mars has formed with Danone, Nestlé USA and Unilever is focused on federal policymaking.
But, of course Figel and his associates may be developing the model that Merrigan and her colleagues could use to implement their new ideas some day when they come back into power. ❖