President Donald Trump’s nominee to become USDA’s top scientist assured senators he accepts the scientific consensus on climate change and said more research was needed to help U.S. agriculture adapt.
Scott Hutchins, an entomologist who recently retired as global leader of integrated field sciences for Corteva Agriscience, also told the Senate Agriculture Committee he would protect the quality of work at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue moves forward with plans to relocate the agencies outside of the nation’s capital.
Hutchins was nominated to be USDA’s undersecretary for research, education and economics and the department’s chief scientist.
At a hearing for Hutchins and two other USDA nominees Wednesday, the president’s pick to be USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, Texas Tech University scientist Mindy Brashears, told senators reducing salmonella levels in poultry would be a major focus for her.
“We’ve got to take action to get these numbers down,” Brashears said of the poultry industry’s ongoing struggle to meet the department’s salmonella performance standards.
Trump’s nominee as assistant secretary for civil rights, Naomi Earp, said she would make it a priority to stop sexual harassment and retaliation at USDA, including at the Forest Service, which has been embroiled in complaints about treatment of women.
Earp, an African American who served at USDA from 1987-90, said she didn’t see the widespread discrimination against minority farmers that later led to settlements with the department. “There wasn’t the kind of data transparency that would be needed to spot the trends,” said told the committee’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
Earp, who later chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President George W. Bush, also said she wanted to work with USDA agencies to find ways to prevent minority and female producers from losing their land, which she suggested could be linked to a lack of access to the department’s programs.
Other Democrats on the committee pressed Hutchins on his beliefs about climate science and Trump’s critical comments of the government's latest national climate assessment released on Friday.
Hutchins told Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, that he accepted a “large body of work” showing human activity was accelerating climate change. But he said that agriculture could be a “net partial solution” through cover crops and other practices that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases. “Agriculture can tell a positive story,” Hutchins said.
He said additional research and extension efforts will be needed to help farmers adapt to changing growing conditions.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also pressed Hutchins to separate himself from positions that the president has taken on scientific issues.
“Who does the chief scientist represent, the president, secretary, the farmers, the industry or the public?” Gillibrand asked the nominee.
“My answer would be all of those as well as the scientific community,” Hutchins responded.
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Brashears was questioned by other senators, including John Hoeven, R-N.D., about her approach to cell-cultured meat. She praised the plan by USDA and FDA to jointly regulate the products, and agreed with Hoeven that the process used to produce cell-derived meat needed to be labeled.
“The consumer has to know if the product comes from livestock or it’s cell based. That will be an important message on our labels. We have to have transparency with our consumers,” she said.
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