February 3. By Michael Sales. President Joe Biden has nominated Tom Vilsack to be his Secretary of Agriculture. The USDA has approximately 95,000 employees and an annual budget topping $140 billion. The US Forest Service — responsible for one of the world’s largest carbon sinks — manages 193,000,000 acres of land and it is also housed within the Department. Biden has charged Vilsack and the Department with thoroughly integrating climate considerations into its agenda. These topics were systematically and emphatically ignored by the Trump Agriculture Department during the tenure of Sonny Perdue.
From the standpoint of climate activists, Vilsack is probably Biden’s most controversial nomination to date.
Vilsack, 70, was born in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007, and he served as the Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration from 2009 until 2017. From February 2017 to date, Vilsack was President and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council.
Those concerned about climate change who continue to serve at the USDA have seen their ranks diminished significantly from where they were at the end of the Obama administration, and those who do remain are likely demoralized after Perdue’s leadership of the department.
Perdue downplayed research devoted to climate change and required his staff to stop using the phrase. Two of the department’s leading research groups were ordered to move from Washington, D.C., to new offices in Kansas City, ostensibly to promote closer contact with the department’s “stakeholders.” Most of the staff of those agencies resigned, rather than accepting the move. The Trump White House triumphantly welcomed this outcome.
It is credibly claimed that Perdue’s Agriculture Department quashed the release of a comprehensive plan on how to it might respond to climate change that was finalized in the early days of the Trump administration. Politico found that, under Perdue, the USDA had basically stopped promoting its own scientific findings about climate change.
The good news is that this report, and all the subsidiary analyses that fed into it, remains available to Vilsack, his team and the rest of the Department. The less-good news is that Vilsack’s commitment to pursuing a pro-climate agenda seems complicated.
For example, shortly after his tenure ended, Vilsack released a statement in support of his being succeeded by Sonny Perdue as the Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsack’s recommendation made Perdue the only Trump cabinet member nominee to receive a public statement of support from an Obama cabinet member. At a Drake University forum on climate change April 22, 2014, Vilsack played down the role of agriculture in the climate crisis stating that:
“Agriculture tends to take the brunt of criticism about climate change, but the industry contributes only 9 percent of the greenhouse gases blamed for a warming planet” and that while there were “challenges globally in terms of agriculture and its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions that’s not necessarily the case in the United States.”
A number of advocates seeking to redirect the USDA to focus more appropriately on low-income Americans believe that Vilsack will strengthen a status quo they say favors large corporate farm interests. “Vilsack has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants — some of whom he has gone to work for,” said Mitch Jones, policy director for Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group.
Black farmers, in particular, have been very hard hit over time by the actions of the USDA. Farms owned by African Americans make up less than 2 percent of all farms today, down from 14 percent in 1920. Decades of racial violence and unfair lending and land ownership policies that were frequently supported by the USDA are significantly responsible for these outcomes.
For example, as recently as 2015, Black farmers obtained only about $11 million in microloans designed for small farmers in 2015, or less than 0.2 percent of the roughly $5.7 billion in loans administered or guaranteed by the Agriculture Department that year, according to researchers Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki.
Vilsack got burned by firing a Black deputy at the Department after believing a recording manipulated by Breitbart that distorted her words. He has apologized repeatedly, but a lot of people have neither forgiven nor forgotten.
“There’s a very systemic problem of civil rights at the U.S.D.A., and Tom Vilsack is not the one to take on the issue and fix it,” said Lawrence Lucas, a former official at the agency who heads the group Justice for Black Farmers. “He was there eight years and didn’t fix it. So what makes us think he will fix it now?”
Probably, in part, to address these sorts of critiques on the Left, the Biden administration has appointed Dr. Jewel H. Bronaugh, Virginia commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, as Vilsack’s deputy. If confirmed, Bronaugh would be the first woman of color to serve as USDA deputy secretary.
The Right also criticizes Vilsack, as reflected in these comments from Reason Magazine:
“Vilsack exited the USDA in the waning days of the Obama administration to lead the U.S. Dairy Export Council, part of the government-created entity Dairy Management, which takes money from dairy farmers—via the absolutely awful mandatory dairy checkoff program—and spends it promoting the interests of America’s largest dairies.”
Criticism aside, Vilsack obviously has strong supporters, such as Art Cullen of the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, who recently wrote that:
“Vilsack’s vision realizes our dream: sustainable agriculture building diverse rural communities, powering a clean energy system that revives our economy while saving the planet from extinction. A ‘fairly significant shift’ is occurring toward conservation agriculture that involves far more funding for existing mechanisms such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. He believes that he will have significant executive authority through the Commodity Credit Corporation and the latest Covid relief bill to fund efforts to build resiliency in natural resources and markets.
Vilsack envisions creating new markets that pay farmers and foresters to sequester carbon in the soil, funded by credits bought by carbon generators. He said he will create demonstration projects that can be incorporated as full programs into the next farm bill in two years. He said USDA will help develop scientific standards for carbon sequestration that are fundamental to creating a cap-and-trade program. World carbon markets are necessary as a way to pay to maintain delicate ecosystems such as the Amazon rain forest, dubbed ‘the lungs of the world.’
We can create a whole new suite of revenue streams to protect from to protect from the vagaries of trade.”
Climate change is hitting agriculture hard. Temperatures and precipitation changes and altered pest pressures influence rates of crop maturation and livestock productivity. Forests are already experiencing increased disturbance, including widespread wildfires and pest-related die-offs, as a result of changing climactic conditions and prolonged drought, and elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects the quality of grassland forage.
Farmers lost tens of thousands of acres to flooding wrought by extreme weather in 2019. A derecho with winds of up to 140 miles per hour swept through Iowa and Illinois last summer, destroying more than 14 million acres of crops. In 2015 scientists with the Goddard Space Institute reported that the Great Plains and Southwest are in the throes of a multi-decade drought unlike anything else seen in more than a millennium.
While critics lament Vilsack’s supposedly cozy relationships with corporate agriculture, there may be ways in which these connections will pay off for the climate. There is considerable corporate enthusiasm for regenerative agriculture (which restores soil health through permanent plantings and more diverse crop rotations and grazing). Cargill, General Mills, Kellogg and Starbucks are among the mega-corporations interested in the sort of agricultural carbon sequestration Vilsack supports. Nurturing agricultural economy diversity focused on regional food systems could help rebuild rural communities, something the Farm Bureau on the right and the Farmers Union on the left agree on.
ECA’s allies in the regenerative agriculture movement, such as Adam Sacks of Biodiversity for a Livable Planet, would agree with the recent statement by Sedrick Rowe, an African American farmer in Georgia: “If you take care of the soil, it takes care of you.”
We’ll find out how much Secretary Vilsack agrees with that statement in the months ahead.