Tom Vilsack pledged Friday to act immediately to tackle racial issues at the Agriculture Department and joined President-elect Joe Biden in promising that climate change would be a top policy priority for USDA.

Vilsack, who was formally introduced Friday at a Wilmington, Del., news conference as Biden's selection to run USDA, said that if he's confirmed to a new term as agriculture secretary he would begin his work “by embracing the full benefits of a diverse and inclusive senior leadership team in the department, as I was proud to do in my previous tenure, and to continue the important work of rooting out inequities and systemic racism in the systems we govern, and the programs we lead.”

The choice of the former ag secretary has received criticism from some progressive groups who had pushed for Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, to lead USDA. Fudge, who also was introduced at the event in Wilmington, Del., has instead been tapped to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Biden said Vilsack “will ensure that USDA promotes true racial equality and inclusion. He recognizes the history of discrimination and will root it out wherever it exists. I've known Tom for a long time. I'm confident he'll get it done.”

Biden called Vilsack “the best secretary of Agriculture I believe our country has ever had,” praising his work in the position from 2009 to 2016 to expand markets for U.S. farm products and to address hunger.

Biden said Vilsack is well equipped to address multiple crises facing rural America, including hunger, the opioid crisis and the COVID pandemic.

“One in six Americans — and a quarter of children in America — are facing hunger,” Biden said. “The opioid crisis is a rural America crisis, as is the climate crisis with droughts and floods wiping out crops and small towns.”

Both Biden and Vilsack stressed the importance of addressing climate change, with Biden mentioning his goal of paying farmers to sequester carbon through the use of conservation practices such as cover crops.

Vilsack said USDA needs “to contribute all we can as a department to aid in the pandemic response — reviving rural communities and economies, addressing dire food shortages, and getting workers and producers the relief they need to hang on and to come back stronger.”

However, “When we emerge from this crisis, we're going to have an incredible opportunity before us to position American agriculture to lead our nation and the world in combating climate change, and reaping the new good paying jobs and farm income that will come from that leadership,” he said.

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Vilsack also praised the USDA workforce. “I know firsthand the character of the dedicated public servants who work hard each and every day to fulfill the mission of that department. And I'm especially grateful for the chance to get back to work alongside them.”

Biden also introduced Katherine Tai, whom he will be nominating as U.S. Trade Representative. Currently the chief trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, Tai is “a trusted trade expert [and] a dedicated public servant,” Biden said. She “has spent her career leveling the playing field for American workers and their families.”

For her part, Tai said trade “is like any other tool in our domestic or foreign policy. It is not an end in itself, it is a means to create more hope and opportunity for people, and it only succeeds when the humanity and dignity of every American, and of all people, lie at the heart of our approach.”

“I am very proud to be an advocate for American workers, to stand up for their ingenuity and their innovation and for America's interests across the globe,” Tai said. “I look forward to harnessing the power of our trade relationships to help communities lift themselves out of the current crisis.”

Biden said Tai has received praise from members of both parties and from both business and labor groups. He also told Tai, “I've gotten more calls complimenting me on your appointment than you can imagine.”

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