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Vilsack says he'll focus on climate change initiatives in second stint as agriculture secretary

Tom Vilsack, President Biden's nominee for secretary of agriculture, pledged Tuesday to focus on climate change initiatives and work to address racial inequities in agricultural assistance programs.

In testimony before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, he said he'd bring on-the-job experience to the position. If anything, this was an understatement, since Vilsack has already served as secretary of agriculture — for an eight-year stint during the Obama administration.

"It's not lost on me, ironically, that this is Groundhog Day, and I realize that I'm back again," Vilsack told the committee. 

Seventy-year-old Vilsack, also the former two-term governor of Iowa, sought to dispel concerns that he would be returning to the job with antiquated ideas.

"This is a fundamentally different time," he said, referencing a need to rebuild parts of the country's agricultural infrastructure in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The reality is we lacked openness, fairness and competitiveness and resiliency, as the COVID-19 crisis has shown, in many of our agricultural markets," he said.

Vilsack Hearing
Tom Vilsack testifies remotely during his Senate confirmation hearing on Feb. 2, 2021. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In his testimony, Vilsack endorsed boosting climate-friendly agricultural industries such as the creation of biofuels.

"Agriculture is one of our first and best ways to get some wins in this climate area," he said.

He proposed "building a rural economy based on biomanufacturing" and "turning agricultural waste into a variety of products." He pledged to work closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to "spur the industry" on biofuels.

Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa questioned whether Vilsack's commitment to biofuels would clash with the Biden administration's public commitment to switch the federal vehicle fleet to electric cars and trucks.

"We're going to need both," he responded, saying there was room for both climate-friendly industries to thrive and pointing out that the Navy has begun to deploy warships that run partially on biofuel.

With systemic racial inequity now a nationwide talking point, Vilsack said the Agriculture Department needed to seriously examine if it was sufficiently supporting farmers of color.

He envisioned an "equity taskforce" to identify what he called "intentional or unintentional barriers that make it difficult for people to access the programs."

Sonny Perdue, agriculture secretary in the Trump administration, sought to purge hundreds of thousands of people from the SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps. That effort was defeated in court, and Vilsack said the SNAP program was particularly vital to the country's recovery from the pandemic.

He said he wants his department to work directly with governors across the country to make sure SNAP benefits were being accessed smoothly and to address the issue of food deserts in low-income communities.

"It's all well and good to give someone a SNAP card and say, 'Go to your local grocery store and buy more food,'" he said. "That's great, assuming you have a grocery store. But if you don't have a grocery store, what then?"

Vilsack received a bipartisan welcome from the committee and faced no serious criticism from Republicans on the panel. Senators from both parties seemed to treat his confirmation as a foregone conclusion, and at one point New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand referred to Vilsack as "Mr. soon-to-be Secretary." His nomination was advanced by voice vote soon after his testimony.

Cara Korte contributed to this report.

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