Senate Holds Hearing for the Chief Scientist at USDA

Even in the midst of a tense Farm Bill negotiation, the Senate Agriculture Committee convened to hear from the nominees for key positions at USDA. The nominees are, Mindy Brashears for Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety, Naomi C. Earp for Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Civil Rights, and Scott Hutchins, for Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics also known as the “Chief Scientist” at USDA.

For organic research, it is the “Chief Scientist” who coordinates and oversees a number of federal agencies that impact organics. If confirmed, Dr. Hutchins will be responsible for the coordination of research, education, and extension activities, including the Agricultural Research Service, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and the Economic Research Service.  

Unlike the previous nominee for USDA Chief Scientist, Dr. Hutchins has a strong scientific background and experience in both agricultural economics and entomology with a focus on integrated pest management. Dr. Hutchins has focused on agricultural innovation and technology in the private sector, most recently with Corteva, a division of DowDuPont. While there are number of potential concerns with his strong ties to the chemical agriculture industry, Dr. Hutchins also has experience working directly on products that are used in organic agriculture. According to his Senate testimony, Dr. Hutchins’ work has focused on helping farmers succeed “with a progressively smaller footprint to the environment.” In fact, Dr. Hutchins was the global project manager for Spinosad, a natural substance made by a soil bacterium that can be toxic to insects, and is approved for use in organic agriculture. 

A recent federal government report, with input from 13 federal agencies, outlined clearly that climate change is threatening our agricultural economy, our farms, and our communities.  When questioned on climate change and this report, Dr. Hutchins was clear in that he accepts the report and the science behind it. From a US agricultural standpoint, Dr. Hutchins outlined that agriculture can be a solution to addressing and mitigating climate change through cover crops, carbon sequestration, and other conservation practices. USDA research can also help farmers adapt and have tools to address climate change and extreme weather events. Research can also help predict, address, and adapt to the direct and indirect impacts on climate change.

If confirmed, Dr. Hutchins promised to ensure the full potential of the Research, Education, and Economics mission area. However, when pressed about the proposed relocation and reorganization of ERS and NIFA, Dr. Hutchins made it clear that he has not been briefed by USDA or is fully aware of the details. Regardless, the details matter, and Dr. Hutchins is urged to do what he can to ensure the quality and independence of the science is not affected.

Groundbreaking happens every day at the USDA, and the USDA is also crucial in supporting research and development of agriculture across the country. Protecting scientific integrity at the USDA is vital to support our farmers and ensure the safety of the food that we eat. We hope that if Dr. Hutchins is confirmed, he is able to fulfill the pledge made in his opening statement to Congress, “to ensure U.S. agriculture is the most effective, efficient, and sustainable producer of food and fiber in the world.”