Vilsack’s Second Term at USDA Must Reform Agency and Tackle Climate Change, Food Insecurity and Racial Injustice

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

Published Feb 2, 2021

The Senate Agriculture Committee has unanimously approved President Biden’s nominee for secretary of agriculture, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. If confirmed by the Senate, this will be the second time Vilsack will lead the Department of Agriculture (USDA), having done so from 2009 to 2017 during the Obama administration. Given the urgency of the many priorities awaiting the secretary of agriculture, and the clear confirmability and qualifications of Vilsack, the Senate should vote on the nomination as soon as possible, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

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

“The USDA that Secretary Vilsack would take over has been gutted by four years of chaotic and unscientific management by former Secretary Perdue. While presumptive Secretary Vilsack would have much to do on day one, we are pleased that he has committed to safeguarding and rebuilding the department’s research capacity, restoring scientific integrity, and confronting the racist legacy of his department.

“Secretary Vilsack also acknowledged, at his committee hearing, that USDA has an important role to play in helping the nation recover from the pandemic, committing to bringing ‘all resources to bear.’ His statement that he will ‘follow the science and institute science-based measures’ is also a welcome departure from his predecessor.

“Far too many people in the United States were going hungry before the pandemic. But food insecurity spiked in 2020, affecting an estimated 50 million people, including 17 million children. For this reason, another welcome change at USDA is the incoming secretary’s promise that he will ‘remove barriers to access for anyone who qualifies for federal nutrition assistance,’ a marked contrast to the ideology of former Secretary Perdue.

“Mr. Vilsack has stated that the meat packing industry is over-engineered and that owners need to rethink their model in light of what is safest for their workers. Meat processing plant workers now stricken by disproportionate rates of COVID infection were already suffering in their dangerous work environment, so it is welcome that the incoming secretary will be an advocate with the power to pressure and regulate that exploitative industry to prioritize the wellbeing of its people, including when it comes to line speeds.

“Mr. Vilsack’s acknowledgment that years of consolidation in the farm economy are real and damaging is a welcome change that should quickly be turned into action to break up corporate power and offer safe and sustainable economic opportunities to farmers, workers and rural communities.

“I’m also pleased that Mr. Vilsack will prioritize climate action through both the agriculture and forestry programs he would administer, mindful that effective, science-based strategies must verifiably mitigate climate change in the long-term while helping to buffer farmers from its impacts even now.

“I’m encouraged by the diverse team of highly qualified and competent administrators Secretary Vilsack has named so far. With so many urgent problems facing the nation’s food system, UCS will be watchdogging and advocating for the USDA to do better and work faster to make substantive and impactful changes where they are most needed. We look forward to working with Secretary Vilsack and his team to meet the urgent challenges the department faces.”