February was an action-packed month for the PBFA and PBFI policy teams: In addition to serving as a co-host to the Food Not Feed Summit, PBFA CEO Rachel Dreskin and Board President Nicole Sopko met with Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, to discuss the growing plant-based industry and its emerging—and extensive—economic opportunities for U.S. growers. 

This pivotal meeting with Secretary Vilsack presented a crucial opportunity to engage a variety of food system stakeholders, and Rachel and Nicole were joined by PBFA federal policy consultant Bev Paul; Ashley Allen of member company Oatly; Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group; lobbyist Shannon Campagna; and a group of farmers who are participating in PBFI’s Sustainable Sourcing Initiative (SSI), including Anne and Landon Plagge, Steve Tucker, and Jill, Tyler, and Brooke Streit. 

Bringing a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise to the table, the participants of this meeting presented a collective need to identify challenges facing our current food system and identify opportunities to expand support for the plant-based foods industry—and the vitally important farming communities that are at its core.

The economic market for farmers in plant-based

The meeting was productive and energetic, and represented an exciting step forward in PBFA’s work to create collaborative partnerships between plant-based food companies and rural farming communities, which are key to realizing a fair and equitable plant-based food future. Ahead of the upcoming Farm Bill, it is imperative that the growers at the heart of the American food system have their voices heard, and we were grateful to witness and participate in these critical conversations. 

“The U.S. plant-based foods industry is growing fast—and a goal at PBFI is to ensure that the American farmers and rural communities at the core of our food system are reaping the benefits,” said CEO Rachel Dreskin. 

Reflecting on the visit with Secretary Vilsack, PBFA federal policy consultant Bev Paul remarked on the evolution of Vilsack’s stated vision around agriculture and how it now reflects a much more inclusive view of “all forms of diversity,” including in farmers, crops, farms, and farming systems. With this in mind, plant-based foods and ingredients offer ample opportunity to foster resilience into our current food system. From farmers’ perspective, being able to tap into markets for crops other than the big staples, like corn and soy, is the key to introducing more crop diversity into U.S. agriculture and seeding resiliency for human food production in the face of climate change.

Fortifying farmer support to advance plant-based food production

Vilsack acknowledged the rapid and tangible success of the plant-based industry, and was conscious that farmers of all backgrounds have been able to find a market outlet that provides them an opportunity to diversify the crops they grow, and therefore, nurture the land they farm. One particular area of attention was the USDA’s growing awareness of the challenges American farming communities are facing, especially as farmers continue to “age out” and low replacement rates of young farmers pose a threat to the future of the food system. The depopulation of these rural communities has long been a priority Vilsack hopes to address, and the SSI participant farmers at the meeting asserted that a sustainable food future is indeed possible—but only if policymakers support to the expansion of funding that helps modernize the food system and prioritize growing plant-based ingredients.

The Plant Based Foods Institute’s Sustainable Sourcing Initiative does just that, encouraging and empowering plant-based food companies to source ingredients grown domestically for direct human consumption. By sourcing ingredients domestically, not only do companies benefit, but so do the farmers, the planet and—as was made clear at the Capitol—the entire food system. By building more resilient supply networks, diversifying the crops grown in the United States, and providing economic opportunity to small and mid-size growers of diverse and varied backgrounds, we can develop long-term capacity, climate resilience, and sustainable methods of feeding a growing and ever-evolving population. 

The Farm Bill represents an opportunity to create supportive infrastructure for the American agricultural landscape that allows sustainable sourcing to become the default method of producing. Secretary Vilsack made it clear that he is sensitive to the complex needs of plant-based ingredient farmers and is looking into companion processing efforts as well as state-led initiatives to reallocate resources to bolster farmer support. 

“The Farm Bill represents a powerful opportunity for policymakers to bolster infrastructure and support for farmers to enable them to get in on the ground floor of the growing plant-based market,” added Rachel Dreskin. “This will help to diversify the farm economy and agricultural landscape in favor of growing nutritious foods for direct human consumption, and drive the food system transformation needed for a sustainable future for U.S. agriculture.” 

This meeting, which brought together a variety of food system participants, represents the intersection of PBFA and PBFI’s work to realize our shared goal of a resilient, plant-based foods system. Our team is grateful to Secretary Vilsack, our member companies, and our partners in the farming community for facilitating this meaningful conversation, and look forward to building on this foundation to establish policy measures that enable the plant-based foods industry to thrive from farm to retail shelves.