Already the second-longest-serving U.S. secretary of agriculture, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack began an unprecedented return engagement Tuesday as the Senate confirmed his nomination to the post in the Biden administration.
The vote, with just a handful of “nos,” including from Sen.Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, places Vilsack back in the office he occupied from 2009 to 2017 under then-President Barack Obama.
Vilsack’s “deep knowledge of agriculture and rural America is needed now more than ever,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Tuesday before the Senate voted. “Our farmers, our families, our rural communities have so many challenges right now.”
The “COVID-19 crisis is continuing to disrupt our food supply chain for farmers, food processors and essential workers,” said Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat.
“And tens of millions of families still don’t have enough to eat,” she said. “And the climate crisis is posing an extremely grave threat to the viability of our economy and food supply.”
Vilsack returns to the office he occupied from 2009 to 2017 under then-President Barack Obama — this time in the administration of President Joe Biden.
Vilsack told Senate agriculture committee members at his confirmation hearing Feb. 2 that he would return to lead the 70,000-employee, $146-billion-a-year agency with the understanding “it’s a fundamentally different time.”
“I am a different person. And it is a different department,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack said the nation faces immediate challenges from the coronavirus public health crisis, including getting food to hungry Americans, protecting frontline meatpacking and farm workers, and rebuilding the U.S. economy from its pandemic-induced recession.
But the 70-year-old Waukee resident also said the nation can reach ambitious goals: Farmers can lead in the fight against climate change; the agriculture department can address systemic racial inequities within farm programs; the U.S. can solve chronic hunger for millions of families; and it can address the problem of concentrated control of resources in the farm industry.
Here are some of the issues that Vilsack will face:
Vilsack said the U.S. can build markets and provide incentives that pay farmers to improve soil health, sequester carbon, capture and reuse methane, and create manufacturing that turns agricultural “waste material into new chemicals and materials and fabrics and fibers.” One idea calls for famers to receive and sell credits for the carbon they keep out of the atmosphere.
The issue gained prominence early in the pandemic when giant meatpacking plants temporarily shuttered as thousands of workers became sick with COVID-19. Farmers destroyed pigs, chickens and other livestock that backed up on farms and couldn’t be slaughtered. At the same time, consumers faced skyrocketing prices and supply shortages.
Vilsack said the agency can help provide incentives for building more regional meatpacking facilities so one or two plants temporarily shuttering doesn’t bring down the entire livestock market.
Ethanol vs. electric vehicles
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican and agriculture committee member, asked Vilsack in his confirmation hearing if he would support ethanol and biodiesel production as Biden seeks to shift the nation to electric vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Biden signed an executive order Jan. 27 directing federal officials to devise a plan to convert all federal, state, local and tribal vehicle fleets, including the massive one operated by the U.S. Postal Service, to “clean and zero-emission vehicles.”
“Will you direct USDA to buy Tesla trucks that run on electricity or will you be supporting our farmers and purchasing Ford F-150s that run on E85?” Ernst asked. Iowa is the nation’s top producer of ethanol, which absorbs half of the state’s annual corn crop.
Vilsack said the nation will need ethanol and biodiesel “in the foreseeable future” as the U.S. moves to electric vehicles. He said renewable fuels play an important role in tackling climate change, pointing to a study released in December that showed greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol are 46% lower than for gasoline. He said renewable fuels can be especially helpful in reducing emissions on high-traffic roads near low-income neighborhoods.
Americans have flooded food banks and pantries, seeking assistance as jobs and hours have been cut during the coronavirus outbreak.
Asked how the agriculture department can improve the food supply chain in a way that helps local fruit, vegetable and livestock producers, Vilsack said the agency can expand market support for local growers selling to schools, universities, prisons and other government institutions.
He also said the department can support food hubs that help local growers process, market and distribute their products, expand “commitments to farmers’…