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Transplanted USDA agencies will stay in Kansas City, says Vilsack

Vilsack chuckled and shook his head in amusement at suggestions the Biden administration would mandate Americans eat less meat or seize rural land in order to reduce global warming.

Despite complaints the Trump administration needlessly uprooted them, two USDA research agencies will stay in Kansas City rather than return to the D.C. area, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday. “What we’re trying to do is limit the level of disruption” and rebuild a workforce decimated by the abrupt relocation carried out in 14 months, he said.

Hundreds of employees, some of them experts in their fields, quit their jobs at the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in 2019 when told to relocate halfway across the country. Speaking to the North American Agricultural Journalists annual meeting, Vilsack said hundreds of positions remain vacant. Together, the agencies employed 700 people; about 250 of the jobs remained in Washington, but most went to Kansas City.

“I think you’ll see over time some of those positions that are currently not filled today will be filled in Kansas City. And some of those positions that aren’t filled today will be filled in the Washington, D.C., area,” said Vilsack. “I think it will be a mix. I can’t tell you today the precise number, but I can tell you that there will be a mix, because the idea here is to get those positions filled. They’re important positions, the research is important, the data collection is important.”

While some lawmakers protested, Congress declined to intervene after then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced with little warning in August 2018 that he would relocate the ERS and NIFA in the name of cost savings. In June 2019, he chose Kansas City as the winner of a bidding war among states and cities for the agencies and said the transplant would be completed by the September 30 end of the fiscal year.

The ERS analyzes food, natural resources, rural development, and agricultural issues, including USDA programs. The NIFA awards more than $1 billion a year in competitive research grants. The Trump administration proposed in 2019 to cut the ERS budget in half.

Vilsack chuckled and shook his head in amusement at suggestions the Biden administration would mandate Americans eat less meat or seize rural land in order to reduce global warming. “I mean, sometimes, folks, in the political world, games get played and issues are injected into the conversation, knowing full well that there’s not a factual basis for the issue,” he said.

The purported “meat mandate” was quickly debunked by fact-checkers on Monday and Vilsack told the NAAJ “there is no intent to take land away from farmers.” The administration has set a goal of conserving 30% of U.S. land and coastal waters by 2030. Some rural skeptics have questioned if “30 by 30” would be a “land grab.” The nonexistent meat mandate was woven out of hazy speculation of how greenhouse gas emissions could be controlled.

“It’s hard to answer a question that assumes the president has a position that he doesn’t have,” said Vilsack which a chuckle. “There is no effort designed to limit people’s intake of beef coming out of President Biden’s White House or coming out of the USDA.”

The ongoing USDA re-evaluation of Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for SNAP benefits, is expected to be a “game changer” that results in larger monthly nutritional assistance to low-income Americans, said Sara Bleich, a senior adviser to Vilsack. The thrifty plan assumes that meals will be made from scratch. “There’s a lot of research which suggests it’s not sufficient in its current form,” said Bleich.

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