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Andrew Kimbrell

Andrew Kimbrell

Posted: December 23, 2008 05:39 PM

Obama's Choice of Vilsack: AgriBusiness as Usual at USDA?


Subdued approval greeted President-elect Obama's choice of Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture last week. This came from mainstream environmental groups, such as Sierra Club, and even organizations that have been critical in the past of the Iowa governor's policies. Vilsack comes across in nearly all of the stories written last Tuesday and Wednesday as a solid choice, someone reliable from a farm state who understands farmers.

But, a day or two later the complexion of the Vilsack nomination had changed somewhat. First, the announcement was made in a slightly odd fashion, leaked out ahead of time, as though the Obama transition team were expecting some flak for their choice. In addition, Vilsack -- notably -- had removed himself from the running before jumping back in just prior to his selection by the president-elect.

Today, the lukewarm reception Vilsack initially received has turned into real heat as the Obama transition team finds itself in the fire over the former Governor's appointment. President-elect Obama identified Vilsack as representative of the kind of "new leadership" Washington needs. But now, even those who initially greeted the nomination with some enthusiasm are wondering if Vilsack isn't a signal of business as usual at the USDA, and beyond.

First of all -- as Politico reports -- there is the farm subsidy money that Vilsack has received over time from USDA. According to the piece, from 2000 to 2006, Vilsack and his wife collected $42,782 in subsidies from USDA. In addition, "Vilsack is a partner at a lobbying law firm (Dorsey & Whitney) that trumpeted his advice to clients on agribusiness development and renewable energy -- a job that appears to bump up against Obama's promise to bar appointees from working on issues related to their employment for two years." The former Governor recognizes the conflict of interests, and claims he will do everything he can to address the problem, and if he must, he will forgo the payments.

If only that was the sole reason to question the choice of Vilsack; $42K may not be enough of a figure to inspire concern. Vilsack's positions on biotechnology and ethanol are far more troubling.

For those of us who have serious health and environmental concerns about genetically engineered (GE) crops, cloning, and industrial agriculture in general, it would be difficult to pick someone with a worse track record. Vilsack was even named "Governor of the Year" by the Biotechnology Industry Organization for his "support of the industry's economic growth." Small wonder. Under Governor Vilsack, the state of Iowa invested millions of dollars of taxpayer funds in dubious biotechnology start-ups, such as cow cloner Trans Ova Genetics ($9 million) and pharmaceutical corn developer, ProdiGene, Inc. ($6 million). Iowa's investment in ProdiGene was particularly unfortunate. The company not only proved a financial failure, but in 2002, an Iowa cornfield that became contaminated with the company's genetically engineered pharma corn had to be destroyed. One hopes Mr. Vilsack has learned from this experience. He also supported (some say instigated) a bill in 2005 that pre-empted cities and counties from regulating GE crops more strictly than the state or federal government. On biotechnology policy, Vilsack is far from the visionary we had hoped for.

Vilsack has also been a big supporter of ethanol, as is President-elect Obama. On this issue, they're clearly in synch, but their enthusiasm is terribly misplaced. The latest science demonstrates clearly that corn-based ethanol exacerbates rather than mitigates global warming, while so-called "cellulosic" ethanol from crop waste and prairie grass (which might have value, the jury is still out) is years away from commercial use. Even some of ethanol's strongest supporters in Congress, like Senator Tom Harkin, have come to question corn-based ethanol. President-Elect Obama and Mr. Vilsack should make elimination of federal subsidies for corn-to-ethanol -- which now total several billion dollars per year -- a top priority.

However, Vilsack has made some promises that are easy to rally behind. He says he supports biotech firm liability in cases of contamination episodes. He has also said that USDA should require companies to demonstrate no harm to markets for conventional and organic crops before approving new GE crops.

All this would be welcome, but so far, there is little to indicate that Mr. Vilsack would be the watchdog so promised. There is increasing disappointment in the choice, so we must watch his actions to see if he deserves the public's trust. If he fails on any pledge, it's up to consumers, farmers, and lawmakers to hold his feet to the fire. Ultimately, it is the President-elect's food, farm and energy policies that will guide the USDA in the new administration. While not perfect, there is much promise in these policies.

There were high hopes that Obama would choose a Secretary who would bring real change to the beleaguered USDA. Though more progressive candidates were passed over, Tom Vilsack may not prove to be the AgriBusiness-as-Usual choice that his record would suggest. Some who know him say he is a good listener, and we should not rule out the possibility of change. A president elected on a platform of change needs to implement it nowhere more urgently than in food and farm policy. This nation needs nothing short of a New Green Deal to reverse the Bush administration's abysmal food safety record and assault on the environment through its promotion of industrial agriculture. Although we remain hopeful with the choice of Tom Vilsack, we also have to remain very alert.