E100: Blueprint for a National US Food Strategy

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

This podcast focuses on the need for a national food strategy and why now is the right time to fix the US food system. I'm talking today with two food policy experts who have collaborated on an effort with an ambitious title of Blueprint for a National Food Strategy. They argue it's time to coordinate policymaking that identifies national food systems priorities, and develop a process that gives the public an opportunity to weigh in on the trade offs inherent in food policymaking. Emily Broad Lieb is the Faculty Director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. And Laurie Beyranevand is the Director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law school.

Blueprint for a US National Food Strategy

Interview Summary

So let me ask you both, can you help our listeners understand what you mean by the term National Food strategy? Emily, let's begin with you.

Our food system - it's incredibly fragmented in the way that it's regulated because there's so many different agencies that are regulating different aspects of food safety, and production and workers. So what we define as a national food strategy would be a set of food system goals and a coordinated approach that would foster consideration of these goals in law and policymaking that affects the food system. We call it a strategy because it would be setting a roadmap for the long-term goals in terms of health and food safety, food justice, environmental sustainability. Others have written saying, "We need a national food strategy or national food policy, and here's what it should do." The aim of our project has been very much process-based. And we need to set out a process to bring together these different agencies and coordinate them. And especially to make an opportunity for voices from outside government, those of key stakeholders and also of the general public, to participate in that process in saying what the goals should be, so that then government and the agencies regulating the food system can be responsive to that.

Laurie, I'd appreciate your input on that same question, and it's interesting that there's not a national food strategy. And I'm wondering if you're getting traction for the basic concept of having such a strategy?

Yeah, that's a great question. Emily laid out really well why we focused on a national food strategy and our emphasis on process. It's probably easier for people to connect around the notion of process rather than substance. A lot of the calls on a national food policy were so heavily focused on substance, it allowed people to think about where there were conflicting interests and not get behind it - because it didn't represent everyone's interests. Our focus on process is really to think about how do you have all these various stakeholders come together so that they can develop a National Food Policy, if that's what we want to call it, or a written document that reflects all of these varied interests? And in getting behind the process, it's a matter of saying, "We're committed to figuring out how do we coordinate all of these various law and policy instruments across the food system, in a way that's going to achieve better food system outcome?"

So Laurie, let's follow up on this a little bit. So in 2017, you Emily and others created a blueprint for a National US Food Policy, and you've chosen to update it now, in a document that you just released. Back in 2017, you said that the American food system, and I'm quoting here, "Is a poorly coordinated patchwork of federal, state, tribal and local laws, administered by agencies with overlapping duties that results in inefficiencies and unintended consequences." What's happened in the interim that made you want to update it now, and is COVID a player in this?

COVID is definitely a player in this. Not a lot has happened in terms of improving this situation, which was why we renewed our call for a national food strategy. A lot of how COVID demonstrated these inconsistencies, the lack of coordination and the really poor food system outcomes that we saw as a result of COVID. But in part it was also due to the upcoming election and an opportunity to get this in front of whichever administration was going to be in office, as a way to start thinking about how to coordinate food law and policy. What's interesting about this as a concept is that it's not unique to the food system. The food system is certainly where we focus but it's not that that's a unique situation in the United States. I mean, we often think of laws as having a discrete focus and then we have agencies that are also similarly discretely focused on the subject matter areas. Where they regulate, we don't have a lot of mechanisms in the US to think about how to account for the possibility that those things might not only be uncoordinated, but they also might be in conflict with each other.

Emily, what are some examples of how a national food strategy could work and provide benefits to the food system?

I'm glad you asked that, because I think a lot of the work that we've done has been really trying to paint a picture for readers about how it would be unique to have a national food strategy in the US. But national food strategies themselves are not unique, lots of other countries have these, and that was a big piece of our research. But then we also looked at in the US, we've created national strategies on countless different things, and so we examine eight different ones in the US that include everything from the National Strategy for HIV and AIDS, with the National Strategy on Antibiotic Resistance, the 9/11 Commission, which was congressionally created strategy after 9/11, really to say, what were the lack of coordination or other weaknesses that allowed 9/11 to happen, and then how do we plan going forward?

There are lots of examples of other issues in the US where we've said, "This is a complicated topic with real impact on society, and we need to have a mechanism for coordinating amongst agencies to facilitate the best outcomes possible." And I'll just say a little bit about some of the findings, and really what we recommend. Since 2017, there have been a lot of cross agency strategies announced that impacts small specific areas of the food system. So there's been more coordination, in particular memorandums of understanding between USDA and FDA, for example, as the two agencies really share oversight over food safety. And then there's been, for example, a multi-agency initiative on reducing food waste, which was those two same agencies and also the EPA.

Leadership & Coordination: Our recommendations from 2017, which were really derived from six different national food strategies in other countries, and eight different national strategies on other topics in the US. And I think that the main recommendations that stand first is around coordination. So, addressing one issue might also have equity problems, or lead to more food and security issues or things like that. And I think we really need to kind of have these regulations that impact the food system being dialogue. So coordination, really having an inter-agency working group. One thing we added on to that recommendation, this time around was leadership. Knowing that there's not really an office or agency out there now that could manage this holistically, and leadership and having an office either within the White House or somehow within the executive, that is managing the process of getting input, putting together a written plan, and then following through on it is crucial. I mean, this really wouldn't be successful without that.

Participation: every single strategy that we found that was successful, it was because they did a really great job of realizing that voices from outside government were needed. And again, as we know in the food system, it's so complex, so many different stakeholders are implicated, and having producers, environmental advocates, affected communities that are really struggling with food access and food insecurity, and giving all that input and then seeing where we wind up with goals.

Transparency, Accountability & Enforceability: That is putting something in writing, saying these are our goals, and then following up with regular reporting from agencies to say how they're moving towards those goals. And we added on this time around, this real concept of enforceability as well, giving some authority to the office that's managing the strategy and making sure that they can follow through.

Durability: There's lots of ways to do this, but really thinking about ways to make it flexible and update. And as an example of that the National HIV/AIDS strategy was so successful. After it was released in 2010, then an updated strategy was released in 2015, that really brought in a lot of new goals and built on the foundation of the first strategy. And I think something like that could be really beneficial here as well.

Thanks, Emily. So Laurie, are there countries that you think have done especially well at this and what have they done to make their work impressive?

One of the countries that we focused on in the original blueprint was the UK. At the time when we were doing our research, they had a really interesting Cabinet Office that was called the Strategy Unit. And the whole purpose of it was to achieve joined up policymaking in the UK, it was doing exactly what we're suggesting would be really useful is looking across all these different agencies, looking across all the decision-making that they're doing and then thinking, "How do we join up their efforts? How do we get them to work together in policymaking so that we're not creating these conflicts and we're avoiding redundancies. And at the time, the UK was in the process of developing what was called Food 2030. And that was their original food strategy paper. They initially intended to have that released over the summer, but because of COVID, they essentially broke that process into two parts, and they created part one of their strategy. And released that this summer when direct response both to COVID and also to Brexit. Their intention is to then release part two of their strategy, which is the big picture National Food strategy in the UK within the next year. So that'll be a really interesting process to follow.

Sadly, the strategy unit in the UK fell apart, but a lot of it had to do with agencies not being used to coordinating with each other, and then facing some difficulties really getting past those obstacles and differences in agency culture and agency budgets and getting them to start thinking about coordination as something that they would do regularly.

The other country that we focused on, Canada announced their national food policy, after many, many years of grassroots efforts to push the government to create a National Food Policy. Emily just mentioned a few minutes ago that one of our recommendations was around participation. And I think Canada provides a really great example. A bunch of different types of participatory processes were fully designed to elicit comments from a broad range of stakeholders. There was a convening of different types of stakeholder groups. So it included industry, food security, advocacy organizations, and a bunch of different stakeholders that you might not normally see at the table together. And as a result of that came out with a shared set of interests, which I think is so important.

In the US, we similarly have a wide variety of stakeholders in the food system, and trying to get them to come together on a set of goals and priorities could be really difficult. And having a process that helps to facilitate those conversations, helps to get people on the same page about what the major goals and priorities are, would be so beneficial. And we have some really good models of that.

Well, now that we're thinking about some of the obstacles, you mentioned that there are lots of stakeholders with different interests. And earlier, you both discuss the issue of the responsibility within government falling across lots of different agencies. So are there other obstacles that exists for thinking about a national strategy in the US?

Agencies have different mandates, different cultures, different budgets, getting over that hurdle, and trying to get agencies both to appreciate the value of coordination, but also just embracing that as something that's valuable, that's going to require a big shift in the way that agencies think about their jobs. I see that as an obstacle that's certainly not insurmountable, but that would require some work. How to get stakeholders engaged in a way that's really meaningful, that's an obstacle that we need to be really thoughtful about. And how to make sure that we're enabling people that often lack of voice in law and policymaking. And then figuring out how to get them to identify common ground to come together around a shared set of goals and priorities. And then lack of political will. And also there are certain people that benefit from the lack of coordination in the food system. Trying to get to a place where they've perceived benefits in a process like this, that that's going to take some work. And allowing them to see the benefit in airing the trade offs that are inherent in food system on policymaking and allowing for greater public input, that all of that can produce outcomes that are beneficial for everyone.

You were talking about issues of territoriality in a way that parts of different agencies are handling things and they have different budgets. And so in some ways, one of the obstacles I'm imagining is that people are people, and people don't want to give up territorial power or authority or whatever you want to call it. So that's one issue. And I'm wondering, does a new structure needed? Should there be some new agency where this work is better consolidated or takes all the work on a specific issue like food safety and parks it in a particular agency rather than divides it? So is there some structural change that you think might be helpful?

There's a way to do this that doesn't require agencies to give up authority, but it's more in alignment and some long-term decision making. And I think actually, for some agencies, it might be somewhat relieving to say, "Okay, we know that right now we can't adequately handle certain concerns because they're not really within our mandate, but we feel uncomfortable with the fact that when we're regulating for food safety, that food security isn't really part of that." And then I would say on this question of institutional design and agency building, my take on it would be, there's been a lot of proposals to put all of food safety into one food safety agency.

This definitely gets that some of the lack of coordination, particularly across the Food Safety and Inspection Service within USDA, which is in charge of safety for meat, poultry, and some eggs. And then the FDA, which is in charge of food safety for the rest of the food supply. So there's been proposals in the last two administrations, both Trump and Obama, there's been introduced in Congress on this, if the whole endeavor is just to create one agency to just handle food safety, it would be a lot of energy, maybe not worth the cost. That said, I think you kind of hinted at this, Kelly too. But just if the endeavor is to say, "We need an agency that looks at food safety, but also is equipped to balance, food safety and regulations with some of these other issues, like broader food safety, safety on farms, and in food production and food security and food assistance programs, I mean, if that's the endeavor then, I would wholeheartedly support it, because right now, the lack of coordination on these things means that we aren't really able to plan for the long-term.

Two other quick things, this point of political will, and circling back to an early question you asked, about the way that COVID has shown and exacerbated these challenges in the food system, I think also makes this a moment where perhaps there is political will. So many people that weren't thinking every day about where their food was coming from, are thinking about it more now. As heartbreaking as it's been, it also gives us a moment, hopefully, we can generate some political will around figuring out how to get out of this crisis, but also plan a little bit for the long-term.

So Laurie, what are your feelings about whether structural changes might be necessary to help address these issues?

One thing that we suggested is having a lead office or agency that would be in charge of the coordination efforts. But where would the best place be for an office or agency like that? Certainly, there would be some jockeying for position, I would assume between USDA and FDA over something like this. And I don't know that there's a clear or natural leader among either of those. And so maybe it is that there's a different office that gets created that would be responsible for this that could be thinking about all these different agencies that would be involved here. And also would come from a perspective that would be somewhat less entrenched in the agency positions that they already have. But I would agree with Emily, I don't know that you necessarily need an entirely new agency to do something like this. One of the other suggestions that we had, was to think about something like a law similar to the National Environmental Policy Act that requires agencies to be thinking about the environmental impacts of their actions, to have something like the National Food Policy Act that requires agencies to be thinking about the food system impacts of their decision making. And to have an agency that would be responsible for implementing that as a law. So that's certainly another tool that we've thought about as a way to carry forward a strategy like this.

Emily M. Broad Leib is a Clinical Professor of Law, Faculty Director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, and Deputy Director of the Harvard Law School Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. As founder of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, Emily launched the first law school clinic in the nation devoted to providing clients with legal and policy solutions to address the health, economic, and environmental challenges facing our food system. Emily focuses her scholarship, teaching, and practice on finding solutions to today’s biggest food system issues. She has published scholarly articles in the Wisconsin Law Review, the Harvard Law & Policy Review, the Food & Drug Law Journal, and the Journal of Food Law & Policy, among others. She was named to 2016’s list of Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink. The list, released by Fortune and Food & Wine, highlights women who had the most transformative impact in the last year on what the public eats and drinks. Her groundbreaking work on food waste has been covered in such media outlets as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, The Guardian, TIME, Politico, and the Washington Post. Emily has appeared on CBS This Morning, CNN, The Today Show, and MSNBC to discuss the clinic’s efforts to reduce food waste.

Laurie J. Beyranevand is the Director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems and a Professor of Law at Vermont Law School. The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems trains law and policy students to develop real-world solutions for a more sustainable and just food system. Beyranevand received a BA from Rutgers College in 1999 and a JD from Vermont Law School in 2003. She clerked in the Environmental Division of the Vermont Attorney General's Office and also served as a law clerk to the Honorable Marie E. Lihotz in New Jersey. Prior to joining the faculty at Vermont Law School, Professor Beyranevand was a Staff Attorney at Vermont Legal Aid where she represented adults and children in individual cases and class action litigation advocating for access to health care, education equality, and civil rights. In that capacity, she appeared in state and federal court, as well as before administrative adjudicative bodies, and served as an appointed member of the Human Rights Committee. She is an appointed member of the Food and Drug Law Institute and Georgetown Law School’s Food and Drug Law Journal Editorial Advisory Board, a founding member of the Academy of Food Law and Policy, and the Chair Elect of the Agriculture and Food Law Section of the American Association of Law Schools. She is admitted to the New York and Vermont State Bars, as well as the U.S. District Court, District of Vermont. As a first generation American with Iranian and Appalachian roots, diverse food and culture have always been prominent in Professor Beyranevand’s life symbolizing the power of food in bringing people together.