What Does Vilsack's Appointment Mean for the Future of Organic Food and Public Lands?


When former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack's name first surfaced as a possible Secretary of Agriculture, it triggered an outcry among progressive foodies. The Organic Consumers Association organized a massive campaign in which 20,000 emails opposing Vilsack were sent to the transition team.

The OCA prematurely declared this campaign a success, when Vilsack's name appeared to have been dropped from consideration. High on hope, hype, and the smell of big-ag blood, a swarm of foodies rushed in to suggest reform-minded alternatives. But these hopes were tossed under the bus on Wednesday, December 17, when Obama formally announced Vilsack as his choice after all.

Obama said his former rival for the White House has "led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers and fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy we use…Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home."

That Vilsack is a proponent of ethanol and biotech shouldn't come as a surprise, as Obama campaigned on the same page.

Both politicians support corn-based ethanol as a transitional fuel source while we move toward more advanced cellulosic ethanol made from agricultural waste. And while some had hoped that the President-elect was simply playing politics and telling Iowans what they wanted to hear in order to win the caucus there, Obama has at least also stayed true to his hard line position against big agricultural subsidies by nominating Vilsack, who is a rare farm state politician against that kind of pork.

Also to Vilsack's credit, his support of ethanol is part of a "kitchen sink" strategy that he believes is necessary to combat global warming; during his brief bid for the Democratic nomination he advocated a 75 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.

Meanwhile, during his run, Vilsack told Grist in a February, 2007 interview that he wants to promote organic farming. This may sound nice to foodies, but it's actually quite an ambiguous statement given that USDA controls the very definition of "organic." And the plot thickens when you consider that the Biotechnology Industry Council, which named Vilsack "Governor of the Year" in 2001, has been pushing to expand the definition of USDA Organic to include cloned animals.

Oxymoronic as organically-grown cloned beef may sound, that remains a possibility, especially with Vilsack at the helm. He's been a cheerleader for TransOva, an Iowa corporation that specializes in bovine cloning, and a host of other services, that could make it possible for cows to never have sex again.

Meanwhile, Vislack is reported to have frequently palled around with Monsanto executives while governor, including taking rides on the corporate jet. And perhaps most troubling for local agricultural interests is Vilsack's support of legislation that would take away the rights of cities and counties to restrict the use and distribution of genetically modified seeds, and leave those decisions in the hands of the state.

Just about the only positive thing that can be said about Vilsack, from a GMO-skeptical viewpoint, is that he supports labeling of GM ingredients in food.

In addition to food safety and security, rural economies and livelihoods, and other issues usually associated with agriculture, the USDA also has a big effect on environmental quality -- both for reasons related to agricultural practices and because the Secretary of Agriculture oversees (don't ask me why) the Forest Service, and our nation's 192 million acres of national forests and grasslands.

According to Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute in Missoula, Mont., "I'd have a hard time believing that the former governor of Iowa has much experience with the myriad of issues facing public lands management. Hopefully, he realizes that forest ecosystems are very different from agriculture crops."

In an interview last May, then candidate Barack Obama told me: "As president, I would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to strictly monitor and regulate pollution from large factory farms, with tough fines for those that violate environmental standards.  I also support efforts to provide more meaningful local control over these factory farms."

Where Vilsack stands on these points is not entirely clear. According to Tom Philpott of Grist, concentrated animal confinement operations (CAFOs) "expanded dramatically" in Iowa while Vilsack was governor. In addition to driving smaller operations out of business, CAFO's are known as some of the worst polluters of any industry.

On the other hand, in 2004 Vilsack vetoed a bill that would have expanded the ability of CAFO's to pollute the air, and in 2006 he vetoed a bill that would have limited the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' authority in granting permits to CAFOs.  

Perhaps it's safe to say that if Vilsack won't work against factory farms, he'll at least clean them up.

This kind of centrism has earned Vilsack lukewarm endorsements from some of the larger mainstream environmental organizations like Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Off the record, employees of such groups have made statements to me along the lines of "Obama could have picked worse."

The Organic Consumers Association, meanwhile, is back on the warpath, having launched StopVilsack.org in hopes of mobilizing opposition to Vilsack's Senate confirmation through an online petition.

Koehler, of WildWest, sees the divide among activist groups, with regard to Vilsack's appointment, as a case of the "'haves' (well funded, politically connected groups that have forfeited their voices for the sake of politics and money) and the ‘have nots' (small, grassroots groups, unbeholden, who speak their minds)."

The Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska, is opting for the pragmatic approach.  "We will work with Vilsack to keep rural entrepreneurship, agricultural conservation, and family farming and ranching at the forefront of these critical debates," Steph Larsen, Rural Policy Organizer, told me.

The CFRA is collecting signatures for an open letter to Mr. Vilsack, urging others to add comments about their priorities here.

"Many of the decisions about the day to day operations of USDA are made by other political appointments besides the Secretary of Agriculture, and we need good partners there too," Larson adds. "We are especially interested in the allies to fill Under Secretary of Rural Development; USDA General Counsel; Under Secretary of Research, Education and Economics; Natural Resource Conservation Service Chief; and Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Affairs."

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