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Why Biden’s Pick of Tom Vilsack for Agriculture Secretary Is a Missed Opportunity for the USDA

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Progressives and environmental and labor activists are objecting to President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of Tom Vilsack to be his agriculture secretary, reprising the role he held in the Obama administration. Those opposed to Vilsack’s nomination say he has a record of supporting corporate interests over those of farmers, loosening regulations and backing genetically modified, herbicide-resistant crops. The NAACP has pointed to Vilsack’s role in firing former USDA official Shirley Sherrod in 2010 as disqualifying. Biden’s pick of Vilsack is a missed opportunity to reshape the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Going back to a secretary of the past is not the way to strike in a new direction. That is status quo.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to look now, speaking of the United States, at how President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the USDA, could play a major role in that issue of hunger, feeding millions of Americans facing food insecurity during the pandemic, and how the incoming administration responds to the climate crisis.

Ricardo Salvador, you recently co-authored an op-ed in _The New York Times” headlined “Goodbye, U.S.D.A., Hello, Department of Food and Well-Being.” You wrote this before Biden picked former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as his secretary of agriculture instead of Ohio Congressmember Marcia Fudge, who he chose to head housing and urban development.

Environmental and civil rights groups had urged Biden to pick Fudge, who’s African American, to head the USDA, citing her dedication to preserving its anti-hunger programs, like SNAP — that’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which makes up about half the budget. As many as one in four Americans use at least one of USDA’s food aid programs. Fudge’s supporters included South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, another key backer of Biden during the primaries, who said, quote, “It’s one thing to grow food, but another to dispense it, and nobody would be better at that than Marcia Fudge.” But Biden chose Vilsack, who became CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council after he left government, a group backed by the dairy industry.

If you, Ricardo Salvador, could talk about the significance of the USDA and what has been Vilsack’s role? I mean, he ran it throughout the Obama two-term tenure.

RICARDO SALVADOR: Yeah. Well, the first note that I should make is that it’s been reported widely in the media that that will be the pick of the administration. I want to note that there’s been no official announcement of that, so that there’s still hope that that decision could be influenced.

But to your point, there would be implications of this. We are living in a historical moment. It isn’t just that the pandemic that we’ve been discussing has disrupted the food system, as well as other systems across the planet. It’s that we’re also in the middle of an attack on democracy around the planet. It is also that we are living at a time when the public at large is beginning to doubt the foundations of modernity, which is the scientific approach to things. And also we are at a time where there is a massive racial reckoning, which is connecting the history, the foundations of today’s modern economies to exploitation. And at this historical moment, any change in administration is an opportunity to strike in a new direction. So, obviously, going back to a secretary of the past is not the way to strike in a new direction. That is status quo.

And I need to be clear that while I acknowledge that is a very difficult job, and Secretary Vilsack did as good a job as one could expect during the time that he was in, the blemishes in his administration have to do with the issues that have to change about the department. There was manipulation of data in reports that his administration issued purporting that African American farmers had been better served during his administration. We now know that is not true. And by the way, the significance of this is that this is a department that has actually had to settle legal lawsuits for billions of dollars, acknowledging that they have actively discriminated against African American, Native American, Latinx and women farmers and ranchers. Who does that leave, that they’ve been preferentially serving since being established in 1862? The farming population in the United States is dominantly white. It’s unnaturally white. It’s 96% white.

And so, in the 21st century, we can’t have an institution with the profile of serving preferentially a very small sliver of the entire population. Its original remit was to be a people’s department. And this was at a time, 1862, the date of its founding, when the majority of the population were rural and when there was a significant number of people that derived their livelihood from farming itself. So it did make sense that at that time your primary stakeholders would be farmers. But it’s 2021. In the United States, nominally 2 million farmers still ply that trade. We all depend on them. But the country is 320 million people, and we all have a stake in the food system. It determines whether we’re healthy or not. It determines whether we’re susceptible to diseases like the COVID pandemic and so on.

So the stakeholders in USDA are all of us. That “A” doesn’t stand for agribusiness, which is the way that secretaries of agriculture normally behave. And this is a secretary, Mr. Vilsack, whom I respect, but who has come from four years of working for agribusiness, as you just noted. And so, that’s not the profile of somebody that is going to be able to be independent of agribusiness and serve a much broader set of public interests, which you’ve listed. We all have a stake in having physical and economic access to a nourishing system that is equitable not only in terms of who gets to eat, but also in terms of who gets to farm, who gets to participate in the business of food and agriculture.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ricardo, before we conclude, you point out in that New York Times piece the question of food insecurity in the U.S. Ten percent of households were already food insecure before the pandemic. That number has now doubled. You also say that nearly 75% of Americans are clinically overweight or obese, making them, of course, more vulnerable to COVID-19, in addition to other health problems. So, could you explain the difference between food insecurity and hunger, and what this phenomenon in America, which is, of course, in the U.S., the richest country in the world — what it reveals about the food system here and the failures of the USDA as it’s been constituted?

RICARDO SALVADOR: Yeah. Clinically, you’re suffering from hunger when you have caloric deficiency or some other nutrient deficiency that is affecting your ability to thrive. It will stunt the growth of children, for instance. And this is one of the ways in which we actually measure that hunger is occurring.

However, food insecurity is rampant and has just as profound an effect. We define that as basically the percentage of your time that you spend worrying about where your next meal is going to come from. And if you’re in that population, then, obviously, this is going to take major mind share, and you will not be able to flourish, because the primary concern is how you’re going to be able to meet your nutritional needs, your food needs.

And so, the fact that in a wealthy country like the United States we should have, prior to the pandemic, about 10% of the population, and now about 20% of the population, that are dealing with food insecurity should be a national shame. This situation just should not occur.

Now, what it reveals, in answer to your question, has to do with who these people are. When you look at who they are, one of the things that you discover is that they are disproportionately what in the United States we call the people of color. This means other than the descendants of northern Europeans that settled the country a few hundred years ago. Just to summarize, almost glibly, a lot of history, what this population distribution represents is that the modern structure of the nation — its laws, its government, its business models — were essentially set up for those settlers and their descendants, and everybody else here has a history of either having been here and being displaced or else having been brought here in order to perform brutal menial labor. And so, some set of the population, over generations, has been having access to land, access to government programs, access to credit, access to the best education and building their wealth and well-being, and another set of the population has experienced exactly the opposite of that, being driven off of land, their ancestors experiencing genocide, people not having access to government programs, to loans, credit, to real estate. They only get access to second-grade education — or, second-rate education. And so, therefore, what that means is they are losing wealth across the generations.

So, if you go back to the formula for hunger that I described earlier, this tracks poverty. And so, the poorer people in the United States are disproportionately people of color. The white poverty rate in the United States, again, prior to the pandemic, runs about 9%. The poverty rate among people of color in the United States is double of that, at least double of that. And so, this is where you find primarily the majority of the hungry people in the United States. It has to do with the history of the nation. And as I mentioned earlier, we’re living at a moment in racial reckoning, and we need to overcome that history by directly addressing the inequities that make some of us poor, and therefore make some of us especially susceptible to food insecurity and to hunger.

I’ll just repeat, these are the results of actual human decisions, decisions to appropriate somebody else’s land, to kill people, to drive them into reservations, to enslave people, to make some people who are essential for the food system to work undocumented so that we can exploit them and abuse them. And these are things that we can change and that we must change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is an ongoing conversation. Ricardo Salvador, thanks so much for being with us, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, recently co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times, which we will link to, headlined “Goodbye, U.S.D.A., Hello, Department of Food and Well-Being.”

Up next, our guest says Ethiopia is on the verge of a civil war. We’ll talk about what’s happening in the Tigray region. Stay with us.

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