If Confirmed Again, Former USDA Secretary Vilsack Must Enact Ambitious Science-Based Policies for Farms and Food

Statement by Ricardo Salvador, Food & Environment Program Director, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Dec 10, 2020

WASHINGTON (December 10, 2020)—Today, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team announced former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack’s nomination for secretary of agriculture. Vilsack served in the same role during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2017. With a budget of about $150 billion, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) comprises 29 agencies and offices and nearly 100,000 employees. Two thirds of its annual budget funds programs addressing nutrition and hunger.

Over the past four years under Secretary Sonny Perdue, the USDA has suppressed, ignored and undermined the work of the department’s scientists, most egregiously by relocating two research agencies in a successful effort to reduce their staff size and capacity and cripple research on critical topics the Trump administration found inconvenient.

Below is a statement by Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist and director of the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“When Tom Vilsack returns to the USDA, he will be dealing with a world and nation that has drastically changed. He will need to acknowledge and respond to those changes with the appointment of a USDA leadership team that is diverse, expert and uncompromised by industry influence.

“Since Vilsack left the USDA, extreme weather spurred by climate change has ravaged U.S. agriculture, the science we need to tackle food system challenges has been sidelined, a global pandemic has unfurled, the economy is quickly deteriorating, and big corporations have further sapped rural economies and exacerbated economic inequality. Millions of our neighbors are going hungry, the urban-rural divide is worse, and calls for racial equity—particularly in our exploitative food and farm system—are louder and more justified than ever. Four years of agency chaos and unscientific management by Secretary Perdue has taken its toll.

“The next secretary has much to do to orient the USDA and our food system toward the future, rebuild the department’s scientific capacity, restore science-based policymaking in the public interest, and make farming and our food system fairer and more inclusive. Vilsack’s USDA must step up and ensure people aren’t going hungry; use science to protect our soil, water and future food supply; and ensure that farmers and rural communities can thrive. Everyone in the United States is affected by a farm and food system that degrades our environment, impoverishes rural communities, worsens climate change and churns out a junk food diet.

“The next secretary of agriculture must aggressively and swiftly lead us in a different, better direction. We look forward to working with the administration to meet the urgent challenges the department faces.”