The Agriculture Department says it will spend more than $4 billion to address supply chain issues in the farm sector highlighted by the COVID pandemic and the recent cyberattack on meatpacker JBS.

“What we really need is a transformational change in order to build back better our food system and our ag system, one that is economically, environmentally and nutritionally more resilient, and fairer and more open,” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said on a call with reporters Tuesday.

The funds will go “to strengthen the food system, support food production (and) improved processing, investments in distribution and aggregation, and market opportunities,” the department said in its announcement.

Through the Biden administration’s Build Back Better initiative, “USDA will help to ensure the food system of the future is fair, competitive, distributed, and resilient; supports health with access to healthy, affordable food; ensures growers and workers receive a greater share of the food dollar; and advances equity as well as climate resilience and mitigation.”

The administration also announced a Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force Tuesday to examine the issue, which will be led by Vilsack, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

Vilsack told reporters he expects “there will be a number of convenings of stakeholders to do a deeper analysis of some of the challenges that we face, and gain from them some of the knowledge and direction as to how we might be able to strengthen the supply chain.”

The food production system, while remarkably efficient, has also left many small to medium-sized producers behind, Vilsack said. 

“This challenge of the supply chain adds to a number of concerns that have arisen about our current food system, a system where nearly 90% of farms fail to generate a majority of income for those who own and operate the farm,” he said.

While productivity has soared, it has come “at the expense of an alarming rate of topsoil loss and soil health and water quality,” he said. The nutrition system “often provides food but can fail to provide adequate nourishment,” and the food system in general “has seen rapid consolidation and a lack of competition.”

Lastly, he also said the system “has lacked equity for socially disadvantaged producers and a fair shot for small and medium-sized producers.”

Among those who would benefit from the new funding are beginning farmers and those who wish to transition to organic agriculture, Vilsack said.

Noting that it takes three years to transition a farm to organic, during which time production can suffer, Vilsack said the department plans to take “several hundred million dollars” and create a pilot program “so that we could learn how best to provide a level of transition assistance that would allow folks to be able to make that transition.”

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The funding also will specifically address the shortage of small meat processing facilities. Vilsack said the department is eying a pilot program to partner with state and local governments on expansion of processing capacity to increase system resiliency.

“Once governors and states who are concerned about this lack of processing capacity are aware of the opportunity to partner, I suspect that will generate a great deal of interest and hopefully leverage these resources effectively,” he said.

“Historically, we've had a very efficient system,” Vilsack said. “But efficiency comes at a price. And that price is the lack of resilience when you have a major disruption.”

The department also will be making investments in regional food distribution and aggregation, including at food banks.

Vilsack said the department will be looking to increase the number of food hubs, “particularly those that operate in high poverty areas. We look to work with food banks and those involved to develop cooperative agreements between food banks and producers so that we create additional market opportunities for small and mid-sized producers.”

The money, Vilsack said, will come from COVID relief resources, the American Rescue Plan and USDA’s own program funding.

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