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Nominee would build ‘civil rights culture’ at USDA

Declaring “there is no place at USDA for discrimination,” University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger told senators on Wednesday that she would build “a civil rights culture” at the USDA if confirmed as assistant secretary for civil rights. At the same confirmation hearing, Chavonda Jacobs-Young said she would be an advocate for advanced technology, such as gene editing, if confirmed as undersecretary for research.

Schlanger’s words echoed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s pledge to “root out whatever systemic racism and barriers that may exist” within the USDA and its programs. The agency has acknowledged decades of racial bias and has paid $2.3 billion since 1999 in settlements with Black farmers and Native Americans. As an indication of Vilsack’s intentions, the USDA hired a racial equity adviser in March and is seeking a nominee for an equity commission to recommend reforms at the department.

“I agree there is no place at USDA for discrimination,” said Schlanger during the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing. She said her priorities would include the restoration of trust with minority communities, the prompt resolution of civil rights complaints, and “helping to build a civil rights culture” throughout the USDA. “I believe we have to be relentless about a dual focus, one that is remedial and one that is forward-looking … to repair past mistakes and ensure there are no new ones.” Part of the process, she said, was “we have to check in often” to see whether reforms are working.

Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Black members of the committee, lamented the USDA’s history of racial discrimination and urged Schlanger to act decisively. “You have a challenge to reform the [civil rights] office that has been resistant to change over the years,” said Booker. “What will you do differently?” asked Warnock. “Will you be the tip of the spear for dealing with discrimination claims against the department?”

Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the senior Republican on the committee, faulted a $4 billion USDA program of loan forgiveness for socially disadvantaged farmers that was intended by Congress for Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian-American growers but was challenged by lawsuits from white farmers who say they, too, deserve help. “Ham-handed efforts such as these help no one,” he said. House Republicans have said that aid to farmers of color was reverse discrimination.

“Civil rights have been the core of my professional life since law school,” said Schlanger, who was a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is now a University of Michigan professor. “My whole career has been about building tools and processes within complex organizations to help them respect civil rights.”

Schlanger headed the civil rights office of the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama era and was the founder of the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, a source of information on civil rights. She has also worked in the civil rights division of the Justice Department.

Jacobs-Young, the current head of the Agricultural Research Service, said biotechnology should be part of the U.S. effort to expand food production while protecting the environment. “We have to do both. And in order to do that, we need to use advanced technologies,” she said.

“We’ve also shared this message on the global stage. If I am confirmed, I look forward to continuing to really impress on others the importance of using biotech, gene editing, when appropriate.”

The United States is a leader in agricultural biotechnology. Dozens of genetically engineered crops have been approved by the USDA for cultivation since GMO crops went on the market in the 1990s. In 2020, the USDA said GE plants needed its review only if their developers believed they might pose a risk to the environment. The biotech industry says gene editing is an inherently safe way to produce plant varieties with traits that could be achieved through traditional plant breeding methods. Groups such as the National Pork Producers Council say the USDA, not the FDA, should have jurisdiction over gene-edited food animals.

“My passion for science and fascination with understanding how things work have been constants in my life, from receiving my first chemistry set in elementary school to running my own lab as a faculty member at the University of Washington,” said Jacobs-Young, who has a doctorate in wood and paper science. She is the first woman and first person of color to lead the ARS. If confirmed as undersecretary, she also would be the USDA’s chief scientist. “I hope I have expanded the perception of what an agricultural scientist looks like,” she said.

The USDA spends about $3 billion a year on agricultural research, almost half of it as grants to universities.

To watch a video of the confirmation hearing, click here.

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