Disappointed by Vilsack


The sustainable-food blogosphere is abuzz this week with big, big news: President-Elect Obama's appointment of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. Most people, like Ronnie Cummings, Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association, are outraged. "Vilsack's nomination sends the message that dangerous, untested, unlabeled genetically engineered crops will be the norm in the Obama administration," Cummings said.

Other proponents of sustainable food, if disappointed, were still hopeful.  "Historically, Governor Vilsack has shown consistent support for reforming farm programs; especially making farm program payment limits more effective, reducing subsidies to the nation's largest farms and investing the savings in conservation, rural development [and] nutrition," wrote  Brian Depew in the Blog for Rural America.  Vilsack also supports a ban preventing meatpackers from owning livestock (and thus commandeering prices). And reportedly he's a friendly, open, honest guy.

It's true that Vilsack is a strong proponent of genetically engineered crops and biofuels; in fact, the biggest biotechnology industry group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, once named him Governor of the Year (he's also championed cloning dairy cows). The time during which he was governor also saw the largest proliferation of CAFOs (confinement farms) in Iowa (although some defenders say he appointed people that tried hard to stop it, to no avail), and he helped pass a bill that gave the power to regulate GMO seeds away from county governments. He was also photographed several times getting on and off the Monsanto corporate jet. Not cool, any of it. 

I'm really distressed that, after everything Barack and Michelle Obama have said about supporting sustainably produced food, they've nominated someone who so embodies the status quo and what's wrong with it. To be sure, Obama could've nominated someone worse, but he also could've done a lot better.  Some people who call Vilsack a centrist point out that it's a pipe dream to hope that Obama—or anyone—would appoint a Secretary of Agriculture as far left as I'd like.  They're right, of course. Let's hope that Vilsack's experiences in Iowa—juggling both agribiz and smaller, more progressive powers—will give him a balanced perspective in Washington. But if this is Obama's "Change you can believe in," I'm not impressed.

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