Biden review of USDA may have a climate mitigation perspective

Robert Bonnie, an Obama appointee at the USDA and now the head of an initiative to identify agriculture’s role in mitigating climate change, will lead a review of the Agriculture Department to prepare the way for the incoming administration, said the Biden transition office. Meanwhile, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge said on Wednesday that she would be honored to serve as Biden’s agriculture secretary. If chosen, she would be the first Black woman to hold the cabinet post.

Biden has narrowed his focus during the transition to four issues: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change. Agriculture has been mentioned explicitly as part of any action on climate change. “Create jobs in climate-smart agriculture, resilience, and conservation,” says the transition team in listing nine areas for action. “At this moment of profound crisis, we have the opportunity to build a more resilient, sustainable economy — one that will put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.”

Biden “is poised to embed action on climate change across the breadth of the federal government,” said the Washington Post. The transition team has received ideas that include the creation of a “carbon bank” at the USDA to pay farm and forest owners to store carbon in their soils, said the newspaper.

At least eight of the 17 people on Biden’s USDA review team are veterans of the Obama era. Bonnie, the team leader, was undersecretary for natural resources, overseeing land stewardship and the national forests, during Obama’s second term. Also on the team are Jonathan Coppess, who ran the farm subsidy program during Obama’s first term; Debra Eschmeyer, former White House nutrition adviser and head of the Let’s Move initiative against childhood obesity; and Audrey Rowe, former chief of the Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees public nutrition programs such as SNAP and school lunch. Other Obama veterans are Brooke Barron, Meryl Howell, former assistant secretary Gregory Parham, and Jeffrey Prieto, who headed the USDA’s legal shop.

“America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest owners are poised to play a vital role in responding to climate change, but only if federal policy provides the incentives, market signals, and support to encourage their active participation,” Bonnie said in July, when he became director of the Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The think tank said the initiative “will develop policy recommendations that incorporate agriculture and forestry as part of climate mitigation and shift the United States toward a low-carbon future.”

The Obama administration had rocky relations with the largest farm groups during its first years. Farm groups, whose members are often politically conservative, felt they were slighted in favor of the producers of organic and local food — topics with urban appeal. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had to mend fences with the groups. Farm income soared to record levels during Obama’s tenure before plunging with the collapse of the commodity boom in 2014.

“Agriculture has practically come back around full circle to the conversation about climate change in 2008,” said DTN/Progressive Farmer. Obama proposed offering incentives to farmers for sequestering carbon on their land. “It sounded like a grand idea at the time, but by the end of 2010, the fights over climate policy were so harsh it became almost taboo to talk about climate change before an audience of farmers for most of the last decade.”

The Biden transition office said the agency review teams will lay the foundation for a seamless transfer of knowledge to the new administration so it can get to work immediately on Jan. 20.

In a statement to the cleveland.com news site, Fudge, who chairs the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, said she “if asked would be honored to serve as secretary of agriculture in the Biden administration.” It was the first time Fudge, who was among several people mentioned as possible USDA nominees, has confirmed her interest in the post. Former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has been the most frequently mentioned contender.

“We need to start to look outside of the box of traditional cabinet appointments,” Fudge told Politico, “and, as they have promised, a cabinet that is representative of this country as well as representative of the people who have supported them. I think it’s a natural fit.”

The membership of Biden’s agency review teams is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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