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Maybe Tom Vilsack Isn't the Agricultural Antichrist After All

Weighing the pros and cons of Obama's selection of GMO-lovin', bio-fuelish, feedlot-friendly Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture.

Obama's selection of GMO-lovin', bio-fuelish, feedlot-friendly Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture drew a resounding "Bleech!" from the blogosphere. Vilsack has a long history of Agribiz alliances that's giving progressive foodies a bad case of heartland heartburn.

Vilsack's cozy with that agrarian Antichrist, Monsanto, for starters -- and if you don't know what's scary about that, you haven't heard that Monsanto's apparently hellbent on seizing control of our entire food chain. Kind of like a cheesy Austin Powers plot, except that IT'S REALLY HAPPENING.

His support of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) brings to mind another kind of movie -- a horror film in which mad scientists tinker away in their labs and unwittingly unleash a Pandora's box of unforeseen -- and disastrous -- consequences. I know, it sounds like another low-budget sci-fi flick, but as Jill Richardson ably documented this week, IT'S HAPPENING NOW (apologies for invoking Wolf Blitzer.)

And don't forget the biofuel boondoggle. Clearly, corn-based ethanol -- which Vilsack endorses -- is a lose-lose proposition; it's not going to solve our energy problems, and it's exacerbating the global food crisis. What about cellulosic biofuels? Vilsack and Stephen Chu, Obama's newly appointed Secretary of Energy, are all gung-ho about those cowpie-in-the-sky fuels-of-the-future, too. But Tom Philpott's written a compelling post over on Grist about the folly of emphasizing biofuels over more low-impact energy sources, conservation, and public transportation.

OK, so it's pretty easy to villify Vilsack. He doesn't have much in common with the dream candidates endorsed by the more than 57,000 folks who signed on to the Food Democracy Now! petition launched by activist David Murphy, who, in the words of Ethicurean Bonnie Powell, "tilted tirelessly at Washington's windmills like a madman with a laptop for a lance."

Then again, Vilsack is someone's dream candidate -- that someone being Jennifer Donahue, who happens to be a personal friend of Vilsack's. Donahue, political director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, wrote a post for HuffPo with the Onion-esque title " Vilsack Best Possible Secretary Of Agriculture," in which she lauded Vilsack's ability to listen.

Some snarky bloggers (I may have been among them) dismissed it as pure PuffPo. But in between the fuming and the fawning over the Vilsack nomination, a more even-handed "let's make the best of this and move forward" consensus is emerging, as exemplified by Brian Depew's post at the Center For Rural Affairs blog.

I honestly don't know what to make of the Vilsack nomination, so I asked Denise O'Brien, the organic farmer who ran for Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture in 2006, to share her invaluable Iowan insights. O'Brien confirmed what Donahue asserted in her HuffPo piece -- that Vilsack is a politician who actually seems to listen. Here's O'Brien's surprisingly upbeat take on Vilsack:

On the one hand people are ballistic because he is a trial lawyer and doesn't come "from the farm." On the other hand many who have known and worked with him in Iowa are not happy with him and his relationship with big ag, especially Monsanto.

Here's the story. Vilsack was the first Democrat to hold the office of Governor in Iowa in forty years -- yes, forty. The last Democrat holding the seat was Harold Hughes when many of us were children or not even born yet.

Many were ecstatic that a Dem had made it to this high office and that at last, we would have access. There is no doubt about it; the Governor's office was accessible. For the first time in years, Dems could walk into the office of the Governor and talk to a Governor of the same party. Expectations were high among the progressive farm and labor folk. We thought we could stop Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and do something about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and have a voice for fair trade. But alas, we found that even though we were of the same party, there were some differences.

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