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The House Agriculture Committee plans to pursue climate change remedies, social justice, and aid for rural America in a sweeping agenda when Chairman David Scott (D-Ga.) and ranking member Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.) take over amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Each of these issues we have to touch — climate change, status of Black farmers, food security, rural-urban divide, and crop insurance — we’ve got to unite together as Democrats and Republicans, and save our nation before it’s too late,” Scott said.
Scott and Thompson are set to succeed former Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and retired Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas). Scott envisions their first hearing zeroing in on climate change, and wants the input of engineers, scientists, and top weather experts.
There’s also a “sense of urgency” to address the status of Black farmers, said Scott, who becomes the panel’s first Black leader. He plans to invite testimony from Black agriculture producers to share their experiences and perspective on racial discrimination within the Agriculture Department — a first for the committee, he said.
Scott and Thompson, in phone interviews last week, stressed bipartisanship as crucial in a time of deep partisan divisions in the nation, heightened by the second impeachment of President Donald Trump following a riot at the Capitol.
“The Agriculture Committee could be a unifying force,” Thompson said.
Covid-19 outbreaks have hampered agricultural production and supply lines, while putting the industry’s workers at risk. The pandemic also delayed some of the panel’s routine responsibilities, Thompson said.
“We’re about 12-18 months behind in terms of oversight with USDA on the programs that were included in the last farm bill,” he said.
Dependent on Weather
Scott and Thompson align on climate and rural development being priorities immediately.
“There is no industry, no entity that is more dependent on the climate and the weather than agriculture,” Scott said.
Thompson hopes to advance “pro-growth” climate strategies through precision agriculture and healthy soils, pushing for policies that complement the industry without “punishing” producers. He said he wants to gather input from stakeholders.
“We’ve not done a lot in terms of hearings or listening sessions, and I’m absolutely looking forward to both,” Thompson said.
The country’s rural-urban divide also needs bridging, as “we’ve got some fault lines there that are getting wider and wider,” including technologically, Scott said.
One step: establishing affordable broadband, which Thompson described as “a required part of life today” for health care, education, and precision agriculture.
“The rural economy has been in decline for a number of years,” Thompson said. “If we do this right, then my vision is we can begin to regrow the population of rural America.”
Scott and Thompson spoke well of former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, President-elect Joe Biden‘s nominee to lead the agency once more.
“It’s the one nomination that really makes a lot of sense to me. It was based on experience and confidence,” Thompson said. He cited Vilsack’s recent work as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
The choice raised concern among some Black farmers. John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, said Vilsack will “certainly be a big improvement” over current Secretary Sonny Perdue but noted in a Dec. 8 statement that “while Black farmers had legislative successes during the Obama Administration, far too little was done during his tenure to address the long legacy of discrimination against Black farmers.”
Vilsack met with Black farm organizations on Dec. 22 to discuss matters such as discrimination they’ve faced in trying to gain access to agency programs and assistance.
Vilsack will work to ensure that Black farmers have a seat at the table during his time as secretary, a person close to the Biden transition said, adding that Vilsack is committed to rooting out systemic racism and discrimination and will make racial equity a major priority should he be confirmed.
“Vilsack is a very good and decent man, but there have been accusations — there have been charges of racial discrimination within the Agriculture Department,” Scott said. “I want to root them out, get it behind us. Vilsack deserves that.”
Food, Farm Aid
Scott will seek testimony from representatives of nonprofit Feeding America and community food banks on how the coronavirus pandemic has deepened food insecurity.
As part of a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, Biden proposed extending a 15% boost in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits through September. That increase for the program, formerly referred to as food stamps, currently lasts until July.
The president-elect also proposed $3 billion for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and $1 billion in food aid for U.S. territories, along with a new restaurant partnership program. The initiative, which aims to feed hungry Americans and keep service industry workers employed, would receive money through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Farmers and ranchers also have myriad concerns. Crop insurance must be assessed quickly “to make sure our farmers are properly financed,” Scott said. The committee will also “look out for all of our critical industries in terms of getting crop subsidies to them,” he added.
Efforts in the 2018 and 2014 farm laws (Public Law 115-334 and Public Law 113-79) to encourage new and beginning farmers must continue, Thompson said. Lawmakers should also consider legislation to make the food supply chain more resilient — a lesson learned in times of shortages during the pandemic.
To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org