Climate, Food Security, Justice Top Agenda for Senate Farm Panel

  • Panel meets Feb. 2 to consider USDA nominee Vilsack
  • Child nutrition reauthorization, next farm bill take priority

Combating climate change and fixing Covid-driven food supply disruptions will top the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee’s agenda, mirroring the new Biden administration’s priorities.

“From the ongoing pandemic to the devastating climate crisis – our farmers, families, and rural communities need help,” incoming Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said in a statement Thursday. “My vision for the Committee revitalizes our food and farm economy to grow new opportunities in American agriculture and provide access to healthy food for American families.”

Stabenow has been on the committee for two decades and led it in the 112th and 113th Congresses.

John Boozman (Ark.) will step up to succeed retired Pat Roberts (Kan.) as the panel’s top Republican. Most recently, he led the Commodities, Risk Management, and Trade Subcommittee.

The panel is set to meet for its first hearing Feb. 2 to consider President Joe Biden‘s agriculture secretary nominee Tom Vilsack, who oversaw the agency under President Barack Obama.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Tom Vilsack, nominated to head the Department of Agriculture for the second time, is set for a Senate confirmation hearing on Feb. 2.

Vilsack is “certainly somebody that’s very experienced,” Boozman said in a Jan. 14 phone interview. “We’ll have to wait and see how his hearing goes, but he’s got a lot of support in Congress right now.”

Stabenow sees a “great sense of urgency” in solidifying the Agriculture Department’s leadership and moving forward on pressing matters, she said in a Thursday press call.

‘Not Really Republicans and Democrats’

Committee leaders are looking for ways to remedy coronavirus-related damage to the U.S. supply chain and help farmers, workers, and Americans struggling with food insecurity.

Even before Covid-19, President Donald Trump‘s trade wars, erratic weather, and low commodity prices hit some agriculture producers hard.

Boozman said he and Stabenow are “both very, very concerned about the difficult situation that the agriculture community’s been in the last few years,” although rising crop prices are making matters better.

A strength of the agriculture community is “it’s not really Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “In order to get things done, you have to take care of everyone.”

The pair also expects to work on climate change issues, following Biden’s sweeping executive order Wednesday. The directive tasks the agriculture secretary with finding out from farmers and ranchers how federal programs can boost the use of climate-smart agricultural practices, among other provisions.

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“We can provide voluntary, producer-led opportunities for our farmers and foresters that will allow them to continue to cut down their emissions and create new sources of income,” Stabenow said.

That could come in the form of a bipartisan measure introduced last year by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) that would establish a federal program to help agriculture producers access carbon credit markets. Stabenow backed the bill, and the committee held a hearing on it last June.

Boozman said he’s sure related hearings are soon to follow, but “my interest is making sure that, whatever we do, is something that benefits the farmer, not somebody else.”

Social Justice

Stabenow and Boozman said they aim to make reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act a top priority this year. Related programs, including federal school lunches, haven’t been reauthorized since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (Public Law 111-296) in 2010. Several authorities established under the law expired five years ago.

While the 2018 farm law (Public Law 115-334) extends through 2023, Boozman hopes to push forward with related hearings, and Stabenow said they’ll seek input from farmers and ranchers to improve the next bill before its deadline.

The chairwoman also plans to team up with the House Agriculture Committee to address challenges faced by producers from marginalized communities. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), the first Black chair of the House farm panel, said addressing the status of Black farmers will be a priority.

Farm Panel Charts Bipartisan Path on Climate, Rural, Social Woes

“People that have been underrepresented in the past, people that have not been treated fairly in the past — I hope that we can figure out a way to make sure that those kind of things are not happening now, and give them every opportunity,” Boozman said.

Another focus will be trade, he added, pointing to the U.K., the European Union, and Asian nations as examples of potential new markets.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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