Biden poised to fill long vacant agricultural trade role

Amid a mounting global food supply crisis, the Biden administration is planning to announce its pick to fill a top agricultural trade role that’s been vacant since the president took office.

The White House will tap Alexis Taylor to fill the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary of trade and foreign agricultural affairs, according to five people familiar with the plans. The announcement is expected Friday, according to the people.

Taylor is currently director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, a role she has served in since 2016. Her nomination comes as the Biden administration is struggling to address the fast-spreading global food insecurity fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Russia’s military blockade of Ukraine is holding back millions of tons of grain from the world food supply, threatening to financially strangle Kyiv and escalate hunger crises around the globe. The crisis has upended global food trade and markets, with countries across Africa and the Middle East scrambling to find new sources of grain and cooking oils as the U.S. tries to dissuade countries from imposing trade restrictions on grain and other food staples. If confirmed as undersecretary, Taylor will serve as the department’s primary liaison with other U.S. agencies and foreign governments on these and other issues affecting the global food supply.

Taylor would be arriving from a state whose economy is heavily dependent on foreign trade, and is steeped in the political tensions that have made foreign trade deals a political liability in recent years.

The administration has struggled to fill the undersecretary post and another key agricultural trade position since Biden took office.

As POLITICO first reported in March, Elaine Trevino, who was tapped for chief agricultural negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative, withdrew from the confirmation process six months after her nomination was first announced. Her nomination ran into problems during vetting in the Joint Committee on Taxation, according to two people familiar with the nomination.

The vetting process has become a point of friction between Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House, according to two people. In public remarks to a national farm organization in March, Vilsack suggested the White House ethics review had been too strict, and had kept them from tapping qualified candidates. Vilsack said he understood the White House concern about ethics, especially following the Trump administration, but added, “we have to find a medium spot where we support the message of ethics but make sure we can find people to serve.” One candidate for the undersecretary role was told they’d need to sell their farm in order to take the job, a suggestion which was widely panned in private by USDA officials.

Republican and some Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, have grown frustrated with the prolonged absences of the two key agricultural trade positions.

Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley back in March blasted the “lackadaisical approach that this administration has taken to trade and particularly without enough emphasis upon agriculture.”

The administration is also tapping Stacy Dean, the current deputy undersecretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, to head the division, according to three people. Her nomination comes ahead of the White House’s summit on hunger and nutrition this fall and as the Biden White House seeks to increase awareness about the role of diet-related diseases in the U.S. and their added risk to Americans’ health during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ximena Bustillo and Steven Overly contributed to this report.

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