Biden’s USDA Pick Can Fix His Old Mistakes — and Then Some
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Tom Vilsack's selection as President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture seems like it should have been a safe choice, given that he held the role for eight years under President Barack Obama. Instead, those eight years have given critics ammunition for attacks fueled by outrage and derision. Vilsack has been condemned as an industry loyalist who tolerates animal cruelty and opposes civil rights. Upon his nomination, Mother Jones magazine wrote, “Biden Picks Stale White Bread to Lead the USDA.”
As Vilsack's confirmation hearing gets underway this week, there’s good reason for concern about his long track record. But visionary change at the U.S. Department of Agriculture is still possible — even under stale-white-bread leadership. It's a different and more visible job now than the one he took on 12 years ago, with far greater urgency and opportunity to push through reforms.
The country is in a dire situation: 54 million Americans lack sufficient food — up from 35 million this time last year — due to the pandemic and soaring unemployment. Food banks are gravely stressed. The USDA has been hollowed out by Donald Trump's administration. Farm workers and meat processors have faced grave threats to their safety. Farm owners are under growing climate pressures including drought, wildfires and superstorms. America needs a bold vision on food security, worker safety and sustainable agriculture, and the USDA itself needs significant internal reform.
Biden has vowed to make agriculture a centerpiece of his ambitious climate agenda and to focus on ending discriminatory practices at the USDA while engaging a new generation of Black American farmers. Vilsack may be uniquely motivated to carry out this vision — not despite but because of his checkered legacy. He has the experience necessary in a sprawling agency to pick up the pieces from the Trump years. His achievements under Obama proved that he can execute a visionary agenda when it's laid out clearly for him.
A second tour will not only allow him to expand on his prior progress, but, crucially, to redress his mistakes.
Those mistakes are well-documented: Under Vilsack’s leadership, the USDA enabled consolidation of agribusiness; worked to increase poultry slaughter line speeds over concerns about worker safety and food quality, and failed to address a long history of racially discriminatory practices inside the agency.
Vilsack also shamefully fired Shirley Sherrod, a Black employee who served as the USDA's director of rural development for Georgia, after she was the subject of a controversy brewed up by a right-wing publication. He later acknowledged his mistake and apologized. Vilsack’s critics can take their cue from Sherrod herself, who publicly accepted the apology and urged him to end discriminatory practices at the agency: "It's time for them to show us they hear us and they want to do better by us at the USDA," she said.
Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is also willing to give Vilsack another chance: “He signals a return of steadiness, fairness, deliberative decision making and sound science to an agency that needs those things more than ever,” Lurie told me.
Since 2017, Vilsack has come under fire for earning an annual salary just shy of $1 million leading the U.S. Dairy Export Council, an industry trade group. Those ties to agribusiness can be an advantage if he plays them right. Agriculture is on the brink of a paradigm shift: It must convert from climate sinner to environmental saint by adopting sustainable growing practices on a grand scale. Vilsack can function as a kind of minister in this conversion, educating his friends in industry and bringing them into the fold.
Vilsack has shown that he can carry out bold changes when he has clear direction set out from above: After the Obama administration set youth nutrition as a priority, Vilsack worked with Michelle Obama to develop and implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It was a historic program passed in 2010 to fight childhood obesity, remove soda and junk food from school cafeterias, and set higher nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts.
Last May, Vilsack helped draft a plan with Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic representative from Connecticut and the new chair of the House Appropriations Committee, proposing a more resilient and equitable food system that could hold up during crises like the pandemic. The plan, which was ignored by Trump's USDA, aimed to make nutrition and anti-hunger programs more flexible and scalable during a crisis. It would reduce producers' costs for transferring product to food banks, and it targeted improvements in food-worker safety. Vilsack should implement every one of these forward-thinking recommendations when he assumes office.
Vilsack should also adopt recommendations in the Justice For Black Farmers Act introduced by Democratic Senator Cory Booker in November, including a framework for investigating discriminatory practices at the agency.
But first, the incoming USDA Secretary must repair the damage from the Trump administration, which curtailed food-relief programs, relaxed safety regulations at processing plants, sidelined research and development, and undermined the school lunch standards that Vilsack himself fought to improve. Under the Obama administration, Vilsack significantly raised worker morale at the agency; he must do this again, with a central focus on inclusive and anti-racist practices. There will be no bold progress at the USDA without restoring health and confidence to the beleaguered department.
Vilsack’s other immediate test will be choosing how to spend the $13 billion of stimulus allocated to agriculture in the latest Covid-19 relief proposal. After the first round went mainly to large-scale producers, Vilsack should guide his investments to the most vulnerable parts of the food supply chain: family farms and local and regional food webs.
Advocacy groups must hold the Biden administration accountable for these changes. If Vilsack can’t rise to the challenge within the first year, Biden must simply replace him with one of the other very capable candidates on the short list for this position: such as his own former deputy secretary, Kathleen Merrigan, or Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge, who's already indicated she’d be more than happy to shift from her new position as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development into Vilsack’s role.
In the near term, it’s up to Biden and Congress to push Vilsack on a path toward reform. "I trust his experience," DeLauro told me in an email. "He’s capable of implementing big changes at the USDA, and I look forward to partnering with him while also urging him to act."
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after Covid-19 as well as the book "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."
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