U.S. Senate backs Tom Vilsack as Biden's agriculture secretary

By Tom Polansek

Feb 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed Tom Vilsack to head the Department of Agriculture, returning the former Iowa governor to the job he held under ex-President Barack Obama.

The 100-member Senate approved Vilsack 92-7. He needed a simple majority in the Democratic-controlled chamber to be confirmed.

As secretary of the sprawling department, Vilsack will oversee about 100,000 employees responsible for food stamps, crop insurance, land conservation and other missions at a time U.S. farmers are benefiting from high soybean and corn prices but hunger is on the rise throughout America.

Vilsack has said the White House wants to tap a pool of funds from the agency's Commodity Credit Corporation to support on-the-farm efforts to fight climate change, a policy priority for new President Joe Biden.

The Depression-era program of up to $30 billion in annual funding was tapped by the Trump administration to distribute billions of dollars in aid to cover farmers' lost sales due to trade wars, primarily with China.

Vilsack must also confront the coronavirus pandemic, which has reduced restaurant demand for farm products and led to long lines at food banks.

"We have a lot of work to do as we overcome obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic," American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said in a statement after the vote.

Some slaughterhouses shut temporarily in spring 2020 due to outbreaks of the coronavirus among workers, pushing up meat prices and leading to shortages of certain products.

"We found that when one or two processing facilities shut down during COVID, it created havoc in the market," Vilsack said during a Senate committee hearing on Feb. 2. "We can't have that."

Groups like the National Black Farmers Association raised concerns about Vilsack's nomination, saying alleged discriminatory practices continued at USDA under his previous leadership.

Vilsack, who was Iowa governor from 1999 to 2007, said at the Feb. 2 hearing that there can be no tolerance for discrimination. (Reporting by Tom Polansek, Editing by Franklin Paul and Alistair Bell)

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