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USDA Secretary of Agriculture nominee Tom Vilsack clears first hurdle, says he will focus on climate change

If confirmed, he will reprise the role he held for eight years during the Obama administration, this time focusing on supporting and incentivizing farmers, ranchers and foresters to adopt climate-friendly practices

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In a unanimous vote, the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday afternoon advanced Tom Vilsack’s nomination as agriculture secretary, setting him up for a swift confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

“We are one step closer to confirming Secretary Vilsack so he can get to work at USDA,” said senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), incoming Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. “Secretary Vilsack has the experience and vision that our farmers, families, and rural communities need now more than ever. I look forward to his quick confirmation.”

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced Vilsack with high praise, an indication of broad bipartisan support for the former Iowa governor.

“He’s well known to everybody on this committee. I have had a long relationship with Secretary Vilsack, and I can’t think of a single quarrel," Grassley said. "He knows agriculture very well and understands the importance of maintaining the institution of the family farm, the foundation of success. He knows how to execute the laws.”

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Vilsack, speaking remotely, began the hearing with a joke about Groundhog Day, a reference to his aim to reprise the role he held for eight years in the Obama administration.

What followed was hardly a recapitulation of discussions from a decade ago. Tuesday’s hearing was full of references to climate change, greenhouse gas mitigation and carbon credit programs, and lessons learned from the pandemic about the vulnerabilities of our food system.

Departing from his prepared remarks, Vilsack, 70, leaned hardest on the need for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and American farmers to lead the way in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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Referencing Robert Kennedy’s famous quote about dreaming of things that never were and asking why not, Vilsack said, “I think we are faced with a number of ‘why not’ opportunities and moments in agriculture and the food industry,” checking off the need to focus on issues like methane capture, biofuels and turning waste materials into new markets.

Vilsack also spoke of the need to focus equally on security in our food system and food insecurity for millions of low-income Americans and to maximize the competitiveness of U.S. markets.

Vilsack made clear that he shares President Biden’s vision of net-zero agriculture, but that efforts farmers are already undertaking — cover cropping, focusing on soil health — need to be incentivized with market opportunities.

If confirmed, he said he would utilize funds such as the Commodity Credit Corporation to pursue programs that would capture atmospheric carbon. Trump’s agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue used the CCC to fund direct payments to farmers affected by trade wars with China.

“The first responsibility of the CCC is to make sure farm programs are adequately funded, but to the extent that vehicle is available if it’s a great tool to pursue what will encourage carbon capture,” he said. “I hope you would allow me the opportunity to utilize that.”

Vilsack urged Congress to put together an advisory group of farmers that would provide guidance on how to structure a carbon market, measure and quantify the results, and ensure that benefits accrue to farmers and not to third parties.

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Kevin McNew, chief economist at Farmer’s Business Network, says farmers are already embracing these carbon-based solutions, “coming from consumers wanting to know how their food is grown and food companies starting to ask their suppliers” about best growing practices.

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, cautions Vilsack and the Biden administration against rushing headlong into a carbon-credit market.

“The danger isn’t that we’ll spend billions of dollars on cover crops and better fertilizer and tilling practices — that’s all good — the danger is the government ratifying an offset market that can’t yet measure and verify the carbon benefits of those practices, and in doing so allows fossil energy sources to delay the transition to green energy,” Faber says, adding that we don’t yet have the scientific tools to measure and verify the climate benefits of particular farming practices.

Vilsack’s appointment has come under criticism from civil rights groups and Black farmers who say he didn’t go far enough last time to eradicate long-standing racial discrimination in farming and at the department. In his confirmation hearing, Vilsack said his aim was to “fully deeply and completely address inequities,” that there would be “zero tolerance for discrimination,” and that his goal was to “lift the burden of persistent poverty for those most in need.”

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Still, some Black farmers say his speech did not go far enough.

“Climate change is important, but so is the survival of Black farmers,” says John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and founder of the National Black Farmers Association. “The president has already put out his broad statement on racial justice. I would hope that Vilsack would spell out what that justice looks like for Black farmers in the face of the lack of subsidy payments, the lack of loans, the lack of civil rights cases."