Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

Changes ahead — if we make it happen

The first few weeks of 2021 have been an incredible ride. As the Bernie meme makes its final rounds after last week’s inauguration, I’m inspired to throw a few reflections into the rhetorical ring.

The first few weeks of 2021 have been an incredible ride. As the Bernie meme makes its final rounds after last week’s inauguration, I’m inspired to throw a few reflections into the rhetorical ring. 

As we noted often during last year’s fraught election season, democracy is critical to our work here at PAN, so the fact that our democratic institutions ultimately held — despite a violent attempted coup — is a very good thing for us all. 

Yes, democracy needs tending

One of the few positive outcomes of all the suffering, incompetence, and corruption we’ve seen over the past four years is that more people are paying attention to and getting involved in politics at every level. This bodes well for democracy, and also for our chance to actually make progress on all the urgent challenges we now face.

The increasesd engagement goes well beyond voting. In 2020, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, record-breaking numbers of people marched for justice, testified (remotely) at public hearings, wrote letters, made phone calls, and ran for office. Plus journalists stepped up to keep us informed, and many civil servants and elected officials stood firm with courage and integrity in the face of violence and political pressure aimed at undermining our elections. 

All of which is exactly what we need. As the young poet Amanda Gorman so beautifully reminded us all last week:

The hill we climb
If only we dare
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it

Yes. We also need to re-center truth, science, and justice. As we’ve seen so clearly over the last four years, democracy really can’t function without them. 

Following science, confronting racism

Which is why I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about the months ahead. As the new administration takes the reins — choosing political appointees, setting priorities, and identifying actions of the previous administration to immediately review — they’ve publicly committed to prioritizing both science and racial justice. 

We’re encouraged by this language from the Executive Order on public health, the environment, and the climate crisis released last Wednesday evening, which affirmed the new administration’s commitment to “listen to the science,” and specifically:

  …to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities…”

It’s our job as advocates, of course, to hold them to these commitments. 

For now, we’re pleased to see that the 48 rules identified for immediate review at EPA (many more than any other agency!) include revisiting the horrendous 2017 decision to block action on the brain-harming insecticide chlorpyrifos. The recently adopted rule limiting science used to make decisions at the agency — a decision my colleague Dr. Emily Marquez calls “terrible-awful” — also made the list.

Opportunity for real change?

As a former (long ago) EPA employee, I can only imagine how painful it’s been for the scientists and other experts at federal agencies who’ve seen work they care deeply about stifled, derailed and destroyed over the past four years. 

The damage to institutions that can and should serve the public good is hard to fathom, and will take years to repair. As I noted back in December of 2016, each and every incoming appointee seemed chosen specifically to undermine the mission of the agency they would oversee. 

Quickly fixing common sense health and environmental protections that have been weakened or rolled back is a good place to start. Children, farmworkers, farmers, rural families, and pollinators are being exposed daily to dangerous pesticides that have long been banned in other countries (aldicarb, paraquat, and atrazine to name just a few).

When it comes to PAN’s longer term work of building a food and farming system that’s healthy, resilient and just, we believe the new administration can — and must — fundamentally shift how agencies like EPA and USDA operate. It’s time to recenter public good, and step away from serving the agendas of corporate lobbyists that have held sway for much too long. 

The deep changes we need in the food system won’t happen unless they do. 

Time to be bold

That’s why we’ll be working with partners across the country to shine light on how corporations shape policy to benefit their bottom lines, and why it has to stop. Policymakers must follow the science instead, and support visionary change rooted in community-led solutions.

From the health harms of toxic pesticides to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, the challenges we face are incredibly urgent, and it’s time to be bold. As my colleague Rob Faux noted in his recent blog:

  It feels like we have lost sight of the image of a diverse and healthy farmscape, and even our farmers are beginning to lose touch with the soil that nurtures the crops they grow. We need to indulge in the hope that vision-building can bring us.”

We’re on it. Stay tuned for ways you can help us press for the real changes needed — including supporting both short term fixes and longer term changes we’ll be pressing the new administration to make. 

There’s a lot to do, and there really is no time to waste. As we finally head into this new year, I’m feeling both hopeful — and deeply determined.

Picture of Kristin Schafer

Kristin Schafer

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