Policy Update: Secretary Vilsack Confirmed by Senate Vote
Yesterday afternoon, former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was once again confirmed for the position, by a vote of 92 to 7. In response, AFT put out a congratulatory statement, saying that we look forward to working with the Secretary. For details on the Secretary’s February 2nd Senate hearing, read below.
On Tuesday February 2nd, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a confirmation hearing for former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to reprise the role (video link here). Mr. Vilsack headed the Department for 8 years under President Obama, and spent the last four years working as the President and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council. The hearing was non-contentious and the Committee unanimously voted to advance the nomination to a full Senate vote just hours after the hearing.
The former Secretary made an opening statement about the importance of additional COVID relief, rebuilding the rural economy, taking action on climate, and the need to increase the resilience of the food system. He also acknowledged that times have changed since he first became Secretary, saying “the world and our nation are different today than when I served as Agriculture Secretary in a previous administration. Then, a Great Recession challenged us. Today, the pandemic, racial justice and equity, and climate change must be our priorities.”
He also brought up racial justice in his statement, saying that as Secretary he will “address discrimination in all its forms across USDA… ensure all programming is equitable and work to root out generations of systemic racism that disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. I will build the most diverse team in the Department’s history, one that looks like America, and will extend that commitment across all USDA agencies and offices.”
He received questions from the senators on numerous topics, but interestingly, USDA’s civil rights track record was mostly not mentioned. Some of the key points he made are listed below:
- Climate Change:
- Importance of addressing climate through voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs and market-based solutions.
- Need for the Department to obtain farmer and stakeholder input on how to increase sequestration, quantify and verify carbon sequestration, and ensure effective systems.
- Potential of net-zero emissions agriculture to give US farmers a competitive advantage in the global market.
- Market opportunities
- Importance of expanding local and regional food systems.
- Importance of creating new markets such as for carbon, methane capture and reuse, and bio-based manufacturing.
- Potential for the Growing Climate Solutions Act to pave the way for a voluntary carbon market.
- Farmers are excited and willing to participate in carbon sequestration.
- Importance of the federal government leading by example and using more biofuel where possible.
- Limiting the use of blending waivers to refineries.
- Use of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to fund a “Carbon Bank
- Need for farmer input on this idea – farmers need to be the beneficiaries.
- Funding the Farm Bill programs will always be the #1 priority for the CCC, but it can also be a tool for incentivizing regenerative practices.
- Consolidation of Livestock Markets
- Need to increase availability of alternative processing facilities in order to create a more resilient system.
- Food System Resilience
- Importance of creating market opportunities for small and mid-sized farms.
- Investment into food hubs, farm-to-institution programs, farmers markets, organic transition assistance.
- Credit Access and Racial Justice
- Need for USDA to evaluate existing barriers to credit access.
- Need to offer better technical assistance to diverse communities – best way might be to partner with organizations that are trusted to provide support.
- Importance of increasing workforce diversity.
- Ensuring that the USDA appeals process is legitimate, and that local appeals boards are diverse.
- Importance of holding USDA officials accountable.