Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told senators Thursday the Justice Department didn’t consult USDA before taking sides in a lawsuit involving Roundup herbicide, which Vilsack affirmed is critical for maintaining U.S. crop production and addressing climate change.

During a wide-ranging hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Vilsack also resisted an appeal to encourage more landowners to take acreage out of the Conservation Reserve Program to address global crop needs.

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar recently advised the U.S. Supreme Court to deny a Monsanto petition seeking review of an appeals court decision that upheld a $25 million verdict against the company for failing to adequately warn about the health risks of Roundup exposure.

She agreed with an appeals court that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act doesn't preempt the plaintiff’s “failure to warn” claims. Farm groups are urging the administration to withdraw the brief.

Asked by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, whether USDA was consulted before Prelogar’s filing, Vilsack replied, “We weren’t.”

He later noted to Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., that the lawsuit was a personal injury case and said he was unaware of the reasoning behind Prelogar’s brief.

He insisted USDA has “been very clear with EPA in our conversations about these crop protection tools that we have to follow the science. Whatever the science says we should follow.”

He also agreed that glyphosate herbicide, known by its Roundup trade name, is critical to no-till farming, which increases soil carbon and protects water quality.

Losing glyphosate “would obviously impact and affect production, and I think impact and affect our ability to deal with climate.”

The committee’s top Republican, John Boozman of Arkansas, used the hearing to call for allowing landowners to withdraw land from the Conservation Reserve Program without penalty. “The world cannot afford for prime farmland to lie fallow,” Boozman said.

USDA announced earlier Thursday that landowners with contracts expiring Sept. 30 could take the land out of the program early in order to prepare it for planting. But Vilsack is clearly wary of going beyond that.

He said most CRP land isn’t that productive anyway and that USDA has to consider both the current food crisis and longer-term food security issues due to climate change. CRP has been a central feature of the administration’s strategy for using agricultural lands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Farmers can be trusted in their decisions” about whether to keep land in the program, he said.

Committee members John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., separately pushed Vilsack to consider making payments to growers to offset the reduction in crop insurance coverage facing farmers who seed crops after the final planting dates. That date was Wednesday for planting corn in most of North Dakota and northern Minnesota. 

Storms “have created significant challenges for farmers who are already behind on grain planting,” Klobuchar said.

In a letter to Vilsack ahead of the hearing, Hoeven, Klobuchar and other Minnesota and North Dakota lawmakers said the payments they are requesting should be funded outside of the crop insurance program in order “to maintain the actuarial soundness of crop insurance while shielding” crop insurance companies from risk.

Vilsack was asked after the hearing whether he would consider using USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. account to provide the payments. He replied that he hadn’t seen the letter. 

During the hearing, Vilsack also told Klobuchar he met with executives of four major ocean carriers and appealed to them to ensure agricultural commodities have access to shipping containers. Vilsack said they pledged "to take a look at doing a better job."

Vilsack also told Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., he is ensuring every USDA county committee in the country has minority representation. Vilsack said that a new USDA equity commission is examining the county committee system as it investigates a range of issues involving potential discrimination.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Hoeven-Klobuchar proposal.

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