“We have a new administration and we are going to have a new Secretary of Agriculture, Sunny Perdue, very soon and Andrew Puzder for [secretary of] labor, and they are going to have to carry this country for the next four years,” and in order for them to succeed “we need to make sure we keep telling them what this country should be and needs,” Jose Andres, an activist, chef and owner of ThinkFoodGroup, told attendees at the Food Tank Summit at The George Washington University Feb. 2.
Top on his list of priorities for the new administration and Congress is immigration reform, given the key role many immigrants play in picking food on farms and preparing it in kitchens and in factories. And in both of these cases, he added, they often are underpaid.
“Immigration reform has everything to do with food,” he said, pointing to his own restaurants for support. He said that because immigration reform has failed to pass so far, he has openings in all of his restaurants that could be filled by dedicated workers who he cannot hire.
Andres also wants the country’s new leadership and the rest of America to think outside of the box to find “positive conclusions” for the many challenges facing food production and agriculture, such as how the military helped create the school lunch program to ensure children were well-fed and healthy when they came of age to recruit.
Agricultural research needs federal funding
Another priority that Congressman Jimmy Panetta wants to keep on the radar of the new government leaders as well as Congress is the need for investment in agricultural research.
“As a representative [of a district heavily invested in agriculture] and a member of the Agriculture Committee in the US Congress and on the Research Subcommittee of that Agriculture Committee, I will push to provide funding for the necessary scientific advances so that our growers and shoppers have the most sufficient, economically and environmentally sound tools available,” he told attendees at the Food Tank Summit.
These tools should focus on improving specialty crop varieties, advancing environmentally conscious pest management, growing organic agriculture production and ensuring food safety, he said.
He added farmers also deserve “help improving production practices – especially in the face of demanding conservation, difficult regulations and, as we all know, ever changing climate.”
Nurturing ag-tech could reap rewards
Echoing Andres’ call for out-of-the-box partnerships, Panetta noted that research alone can’t solve all the challenges facing the identity and that it needs to be paired with technology.
For example, he pointed to an emerging partnership between Salinas Valley and Silicon Valley.
“Yes, the sun shines on Salinas Valley … but Salinas Valley also is located in the shadow, thankfully, of Silicon Valley, and we are working on many ways to bridge those areas,” he said.
One such effort is to reduce water use through drones and cellphones, he said. Another focus should be on ways to manage the shrinking labor force by streamlining how to pick and process high value specialty crops that go straight from the farm to the store.
In that regard, Panetta said, “the government needs to support funding for ag-tech research, but it also needs to support private companies that are working together with our private farmers to make sure they come up with those tools for agriculture industry.”
Nutrition should be on the center of the plate
In the next four years, new government officials also need to focus on improving Americans’ nutrition, Panetta said, noting he will prioritize this through his position on the Agriculture Committee’s Nutrition Subcommittee.
“I look forward to promoting access to fresh fruits and vegetables through a number of programs, like the school breakfast and lunch programs, expanding the farmers markets we see popping up everywhere and many other better ways to connect consumers to producers,” he said.