Vilsack confirmed for 2nd stint as US agriculture secretary

FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2020, file photo former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who the Biden administration chose to reprise that role, speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) (Susan Walsh, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to confirm Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary, his second run at the Cabinet post.

The former Iowa governor spent eight years leading the same Department of Agriculture for former President Barack Obama's entire administration. He was confirmed Tuesday on a 92-7 vote.

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“We’re going to be a USDA that represents and serves all Americans,” Vilsack said after the vote. “I am optimistic about the future and believe our brightest days are ahead.”

In his testimony, Vilsack, 70, heavily endorsed boosting climate-friendly agricultural industries such as the creation of biofuels, saying, “Agriculture is one of our first and best ways to get some wins" on climate change.

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

With systemic racial inequity now a nationwide talking point, Vilsack also envisioned creating an “equity task force” inside the department. Its job, he said, would be to identify what he called “intentional or unintentional barriers" that prevent or discourage farmers of color from properly accessing federal assistance programs.

Vilsack also heavily backed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps, or SNAP — as a key instrument in helping the country's most vulnerable families survive and recover from the pandemic era. His Trump-era predecessor, Sonny Perdue, had sought to purge hundreds of thousands of people from the SNAP-recipient lists.

Vilsack received minimal pushback or criticism during confirmation hearings. One of the “no” votes came from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Sanders later said that Vilsack would “be fine” but he would have liked “somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture.”

Vilsack's approval was hailed by the Food Research and Action Center, which focuses on food security and equity. The organization said Vilsack's department faces a looming challenge to “protect and strengthen federal nutrition programs to help address our nation’s hunger crisis that has been deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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