Tom Vilsack, set to take a historic second stint as agriculture secretary, is pledging to make climate change and racial justice top priorities for the Agriculture Department, assuring senators that he understands the times and challenges have changed since he left the government four years ago. 

"This is a fundamentally different time, and I am a different person, and it’s a different department," said Vilsack, testifying online to the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday. A few hours after the hearing, the committee approved his nomination, clearing it for final Senate floor action. 

During the hearing, he pledged to root out discrimination in USDA programs and utilize farmers to voluntarily help meet President Joe Biden's pledge to make U.S. agriculture carbon neutral. In response to questions about concentration in the meatpacking sector, he suggested working with the Justice Department to reconstitute a task force to study the fair practices in the sector.

He put more emphasis on assisting the development of new processing capacity, saying that a $60 million grant program included in the omnibus bill enacted in December will be a start; the program would subsidize small meat processors that are seeking to qualify for federal inspection. He didn't rule out resurrecting country-of-origin labeling requirements for meat but only if there is a way to ensure that the World Trade Organization finds them legal. 

He affirmed his plan to use USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. spending authority to develop an agricultural carbon bank, which he portrayed as a way to prove that carbon markets could work. "It is a great tool for us to create the kind of structure that will inform future farm bills," he said. 

He pledged to be an advocate for expanding U.S. farm trade, including by working "collaboratively" with the U.S. Trade Representative to address ongoing trade issues with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and markets. He also promised to push for developing regionally-based domestic markets for small- and medium-size producers. 

Biden’s nomination of Vilsack, who served in the role for all eight years of the Obama administration, has been welcomed by farm groups, but many critics on the left have accused him of ignoring racial injustice in USDA programs.

In testimony prepared for the hearing, Vilsack promised to “take bold action” to “address discrimination in all its forms across USDA agencies, offices and programs.” He did not provide any details of changes he would make, but he said he would “ensure all programming is equitable and work to root out generations of systemic racism that disproportionately affects Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people and other People of Color.”

The committee advanced Vilsack's nomination despite a lack of a Senate organizational resolution has left the panel without official leadership. The incoming chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, agreed to go forward with the hearing and vote despite the organizational challenge.

"Vilsack has the experience and vision that our farmers, families, and rural communities need now more than ever," said Stabenow. 

Vilsack, who developed proposals in Biden’s climate plan to ramp up agricultural carbon markets, cast the policy as a key way to improve the rural economy. As president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council for the past four years, Vilsack is credited with helping push the U.S. dairy industry to make its commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a goal in line with the Paris climate agreement. 

In his testimony, Vilsack said USDA would “lead the federal government in building and maintaining new markets in America that diversify rural economies; producing healthy, local and regional foods; investing in renewable energy; creating a thriving biobased manufacturing sector; embracing sustainable and regenerative practices that enhance soil health; and delivering science-based solutions to help mitigate and reduce climate change.

“We must stop the farm debt cycle and create transparency in pricing throughout the supply chain; expand overseas markets and give U.S. agriculture a level playing field; and harness USDA’s expertise in science and conservation to work with farmers, ranchers and forest owners to create new sources of income tied to their good climate practices,” he said.

During the hearing, he was repeatedly questioned by Republican senators about Biden's push to increase production and demand for electric vehicles. Citing his own older vehicle, a 2006 Ford Focus, Vilsack insisted there would be continued demand for liquid fuels for the foreseeable future, and he repeatedly touted the potential for using biofuels in aviation and marine applications. 

"The reality is that GM and Food and all of those other car companies are not going to stop producing combustion engines," Vilsack told the committee. 

Marking a sharp departure from the Trump administration, Vilsack also promised to remove barriers to nutrition assistance, again without giving specifics. His predecessor, Sonny Perdue, issued a series of proposals to tighten eligibility and benefit rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The one major rule that was finalized — making it harder for states to obtain waivers from SNAP work requirements — was blocked by a federal judge.

“Today, 30 million adults and as many as 17 million children — more than 1 in 5 Black and Latino households — report they do not have enough food to eat. This, in and of itself, is an epidemic worthy of a coordinated, national response,” Vilsack said.

Trade wasn't a major topic of his prepared testimony or of the hearing, but Vilsack's work for the USDEC has ensured he knows first hand how much the trade war with China has cost U.S. exporters of whey, cheese and other dairy goods. He is also adamant in his opposition to the European Union’s efforts to spread globally its “geographical indication” restrictions that protect the use of European food names, like asiago and gruyere cheese.

Vilsack, like many in the U.S. ag sector, also has been determined to increase exports of U.S. commodities to Southeast Asia, a prospective market he raised during the hearing. He also cited Africa as a long-term opportunity for U.S. farmers. 

Bill Tomson contributed to this report. 

Story updated at 2:45 p.m. with the committee vote to approve Vilsack.

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