Dec. 10, 2020 at 5:54 a.m. MST
with Alexandra Ellerbeck
Joe Biden just picked one of his most important — if unheralded — Cabinet members when it comes to enacting his agenda on climate change. Tom Vilsack, who ran the Agriculture Department for eight years under President Barack Obama, is set to reprise the role after Biden tapped him to be the next agriculture secretary, our colleagues Annie Linskey, Matt Viser and Seung Min Kim report.
The USDA is confronting the effects of a warming world like it never has.
Former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack campaigning for Joe Biden earlier this year in Burlington, Iowa. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
In the four years since Vilsack's first stint at the department, increasingly intense fires have scorched western forests — including woodlands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, a USDA agency — while farmers continue to face a heightened threat of drought and other changes in weather patterns as temperatures climb.
“This was not necessarily a focus at the department a decade ago,” said Sasha Mackler, director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank.
Now Biden will task the Agriculture Department to be a part of the solution to climate change.
During the campaign, the former vice president called for the federal government to play a role in “decarbonizing the food and agriculture sector” while providing financial incentives for farmers to grow in ways that “remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground.”
It will be up to Vilsack and his team to fill in the details and achieve those goals.
Right now, agriculture is a big, but under appreciated, contributor to climate change. Farms account for a tenth of all greenhouse gases from human activity in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Those emissions come in the form of methane belched by cows and nitrous oxide given off by fertilizer that crops fail to absorb.
Vilsack's department was one of the few in the Obama administration to complete a climate adaptation plan before he left office. His department took steps to perverse forests overseas and fund renewable energy projects.
Already policy wonks are thinking about what the USDA can do on climate.
One idea put forward by a team of former Obama administration officials is to establish a “carbon bank.” Housed under the department's Commodity Credit Corporation, the bank would either offer loans to or simply pay farms that tend to their lands in ways that lock carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere.
Another proposal, suggested by Mackler, is lower premiums on federally subsided crop insurance for growers who farm sustainably.
“There are financial tools the department has in place that can be used to enhance the practice of farmers, ranchers and foresters that can result in greater carbon uptake,” Mackler said. The idea may have purchase in the Biden administration since another member of the think tank, Robert Bonnie, is leading Biden's USDA transition team.
And Evergreen, an environmental group the Biden campaign consulted when crafting its climate plan, is calling for the creation of a new USDA office to fund research in cutting-edge farming.
h the defense and energy departments, which have their own incubators for nascent technology — respectively, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The 2018 farm bill established a pilot program for such an office at the USDA.
“It's a proven model to incentivize innovation,” said Jared Leopold, a co-founder and communications adviser for Evergreen. “It's a winner for farmers and a winner for the climate as well.”
Vilsack's potential return to the USDA got a mixed response from environmental groups.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a hunting advocacy, praised the former agriculture secretary for being an advocate for “abundant public access, vital fish and wildlife habitat [and] greater certainty for our nation’s farmers and ranchers" during his last stint at the USDA.
But Vilsack has spent portions of his career advocating for agribusinesses seen by some climate experts and activists as part of the problem.
During his two terms as Iowa's governor, he was a big proponent of corn-based ethanol, which is often blamed for expanding agriculture into habitats. And since 2017, he has headed the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a lobbying group for U.S. milk producers.
Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of the Friends of the Earth’s food and agriculture program, said she was “deeply disappointed” in the pick. She added that she hopes Vilsack “will this time take on the agribusiness lobby that dominates the agency."