David Scott Sets Racial Justice, Food Security, and Climate Change as Priorities for House Ag | Civil Eats

David Scott Sets Racial Justice, Food Security, and Climate Change as Priorities for House Ag

The first Black chairman of the powerful Agriculture Committee says his team is already lining up several spring hearings on key issues.

Congressman David Scott, presents the keynote speech of the USDA Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service Award Ceremony in Washington D.C., on Thursday, January 11, 2018. (USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

Congressman David Scott presents the keynote speech of the USDA Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service Award Ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, January 11, 2018. (USDA photo by Lance Cheung)

On Tuesday, just a day after Congress finally passed a third COVID-19 relief package and two days before Christmas, Congressman David Scott (D-Georgia) was eager to both reflect on the past and plan for the future.

The 75-year-old representative started by describing his grandparents’ South Carolina farm where he was born and later picked cotton, fed the hogs, and milked the cows. (“You name it, I did it.”) He recalled later living in Scarsdale, New York, with his parents, where he was “the only Black kid in the whole city.” Fast forward to his first run for Congress in 2002 (after 28 years as a state legislator), and he remembered knocking on doors in Georgia at a time when voters were fighting to keep the Confederate battle flag emblem on their state flag.

The way that Scott’s Black identity has shaped his path forward is a constant in all of these stories. So it’s no wonder that as incoming Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, he’s prepared to prioritize justice for Black farmers who have for decades faced discrimination within both the agriculture industry and government agencies.

David Scott's official Congressional portrait.

The House Agriculture Committee is responsible for developing and evaluating food and farm policies and providing oversight on farm programs as well as nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP). It also drafts a version of the one-every-five year farm bill and works with the Senate Agricultural committee to complete a final bill. Scott replaces Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat and long-time committee member who lost re-election in November.

Scott represents part of Atlanta and its suburbs and is generally considered a centrist Democrat. In 2018 Farm Bill negotiations, he successfully fought to increase funding for historically Black land-grant universities, a provision he said he hopes to make permanent in the next Farm Bill.

But right now, when Scott thinks about the near future, it’s filled with hearings. He repeatedly emphasized that his staff was already in the process of setting up several that would happen within the first four to five months of his term, on key issues.

David Scott is prepared to prioritize justice for Black farmers who have for decades faced discrimination within both the agriculture industry and government agencies.

For Scott, getting Black farmers, representatives of food banks, and scientists in front of Congress to talk about the most pressing challenges in the food system—many of which have been exacerbated by COVID-19—is a critical first step in developing smart policy responses.

“In terms of getting this pandemic behind us, we can’t do it without making sure our food supply chain is in place. And we can’t do it if folks don’t have money in their pockets to buy the food,” he said.

In an exclusive interview with Civil Eats, Scott explained some of his priorities and plans.

On equity and justice for Black farmers.

I have asked my ag staff, and we’re going to do a series of hearings on things like . . . justice for Black farmers. I’m the chairman for everybody: Every race, every creed, every color. We have to eliminate every instance of discrimination and injustice within the agriculture industry, and one of the primary places we’re going to start is right here at home.

In the federal government, we’ve had complaint after complaint. We have an [incoming] secretary of agriculture, who I worked with for over eight years during the Obama administration, but it was under his watch that a lot of discrimination happened. So, I’m compelled. We need for the first time to have Black farmers come before Congress to testify about how they’re doing, how we can help, and to let them know that [discrimination] will cease.

I think it’s smart of us to bring in Black farmers, bring in the Agriculture Department, bring in our credit and financial people, our land-leasing people. And this will go as a twin effort the $80 million I secured for the African-American land-grant colleges and universities.

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“In terms of getting this pandemic behind us, we can’t do it without making sure our food supply chain is in place. And we can’t do it if folks don’t have money in their pockets to buy the food.”

We can do this, but we have to look at the history. Nobody has paid their dues more in agriculture [than Black farmers]. The whole root, the heritage of the African-American people lies in the bosom of agriculture. We were the pioneer farmers, and we did it for free, because we were slaves.

On rising rates of hunger and food insecurity during COVID-19.

We are quickly putting together a committee hearing on hunger and food insecurity. It’s here, it’s alive, and we need to pull the covers off. We’ve got 17 million children [facing food insecurity] in our country. We’ve got 356,000 children going hungry every night in Georgia. It is a disgrace. I’ve already contacted food banks. When I did my drive-through COVID-19 testing, we reached out in the community and we were able to get thousands and thousands of our people tested, and I also partnered at the same time with community food banks in Georgia to make sure we had food. And that opened my eyes to how serious hunger is. It’s got to be addressed.

On the rural-urban divide.

We’ve also got to deal with this increasingly deepening and widening fault line between urban and rural communities. Many of our rural communities are dying on the vine because they’re not connected to broadband. We keep talking about it and putting it in infrastructure [bills] and so forth, but it is [essential to] agriculture [policy].

David Scott (center) with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue at a food bank event in Georgia.

David Scott (center) with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue (left) and others at a food bank event in Georgia.

As much as I love Atlanta, we can’t grow cotton here; we can’t grow vegetables and crops and all the livestock in urban areas. Agriculture is in the rural areas. We’ve got to enrich and save these small towns so they can be viable. And [without broadband], people are not going to make their homes there. There are a lot of businesses that are not going to be there. You can’t have telemedicine or tele-education. So, these are all things that we really have to look to in our future.

On the immediate need to connect agriculture and climate change.

Hunger is tied in with the other hearing that I’m planning, which is on climate change, because our failure to deal with climate change in a way that yields results is treacherous to our food supply. You’ve got fires burning up the West Coast unlike we’ve ever seen and they’re burning [crop] acres and livestock. The impact that we had from [a record-breaking number of] hurricanes this season . . . the tornadoes, floods. We have got to [hear from] the scientists and engineers and weather experts.

Nobody has paid their dues more in agriculture [than Black farmers]. We were the pioneer farmers, and we did it for free, because we were slaves.

There’s no industry that is impacted more from climate change than agriculture. That’s how our food is manifested, with water coming from the heavens above and then the rich earth that produces the plant life. It’s amazing, and we’ve got to get our hands around it. We’ve got to be dealing with carbon sequestration. Because it’s also the answer, and already we have entities in agriculture that are moving in that direction. So, we need to have a hearing where we can expose all of this.

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On accelerating disaster aid for farmers.

When we have these storms, our farmers need aid. We’ve been sending it through the regular appropriations process, and that makes it highly politicized. You remember how the Trump White House didn’t want to get aid to Puerto Rico, and that almost devastated them?

I want to put forward legislation that would create a separate, independent fund that is already in place. So when the storms are raging and these farmers need aid, we don’t have to put a bill through the appropriations process. We can get money out of the special emergency fund to help them stay on their feet.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior policy reporter. Her stories on the food system, sustainable agriculture, and food policy have appeared in many publications, including Eater, NPR’s The Salt, and Edible Manhattan. She also produces and hosts the weekly podcast “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network. In the past, Lisa covered health and wellness for publications including the New York Times and Women’s Health and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Believe me, I am sensitive to the delicacy of what I am about to say, especially as I am a white, privileged male, but I still think it needs to be said. It's not true that "Nobody has paid their dues more in agriculture [than Black farmers]." ALL oppressed demographics have paid heavy dues in agriculture-- indigenous (it must be pointed out that the ancestors of today's Native Americans farmed the whole continent before the genocide), latinx, women, Asian (don't forget the stealing of Japanese-American farms during WWII), and the low-income (like me). David Scott says he will be "the chairman for everybody," but it doesn't sound that way. It doesn't sound that way when it seems he mentions "everybody" in passing but mainly focuses on Black farmers. It doesn't sound that way when he carelessly calls Black farmers "pioneers" without regard to how painful and traumatizing that term is to our indigenous neighbors. There should not be a Justice for Black Farmers Act, there needs to be a Justice for All Oppressed Farmers Act. David Scott, please broaden your focus.
  2. What is needed is a big boost in funding for the beginning and disadvantaged farmers program which has been chronically underfunded relative to applicants, stricter regulation of industrial farming, and especially a limitation on crop insurance to those farms instituting genuinely soil-saving reforms. Regenerative agriculture needs no insurance, just start up support. The countryside is ready for this. Support it!

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