Vilifying Vilsack

A field of cornToday, Obama revealed that he’d picked former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as his Secretary of Agriculture. There’s been a lot of opposition to this choice among the blogs and websites I read. For example, arduous dislikes Vilsack because he’s more of the same, despite Obama’s commitment to change (as an aside, change for change’s sake is silly, so it makes sense to me that Obama would continue some policies). Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Vilsack. Why don’t people like him?

Since Vilsack’s most vocal opponent in this arena has been the Organic Consumer’s Association (OCA), I visited their website to find out what their opposition was all about. They provide six reasons Vilsack is a bad choice. In their latest press release, they also suggest that Vilsack has done some good, namely restricting livestock monopolies. Vilsack’s problems are listed as:

  • Supports pharmaceutical crops
  • Supports the biotechnology industry
  • Supports animal cloning
  • Originated Iowa’s seed pre-emption bill
  • Has a reputation as a shill for Monsanto
  • Supports corn and soy based biofuels

Some of these reasons speak to me more than others. I’m not sure why supporting biotechnology or animal cloning is inherently bad. There are a lot of cool technologies in the pipeline that are fueled by biotechnology and cloning. The example that jumps to mind is human genome project, whic is pure biotechnology and promises future miracle cures. As far as I can tell, the item “supports pharmaceutical crops” is based on one incident where Vilsack questioned a voluntary industry-based moratorium on growing genetically modified corn in states where other corn was being grown. Vilsack’s concern that this is throwing the baby out with the bath water resonates with me better than the moratorium itself (which seems to be primarily a PR move). If corn can produce cheaper insulin, that’s something that should be studied. I’m not sure that Iowa, among other states, should not do such research just because other corn is grown in the state.

I’m less sanguine about Vilsack’s support of Iowa’s seed-preemption bill. Basically, this state-wide bill makes it illegal for localities within Iowa to ban genetically modified (GM) crops. I can see how Vilsack arrived at this bill, since it’s a clear progression from his position on pharmaceutical crops. On the other hand, although it doesn’t make sense to avoid genetically modified corn in an entire state, it might make sense to restrict it on a local level. As a simple example, small farmers might want to be able to create a GM-free zone so that they can market their food as GM-free.

Vilsack’s ties to Monsanto are worrisome, as are any ties elected officials have to companies that can benefit from their position. However, I haven’t seen any evidence of wrong-doing (the OCA links to an animated video made by an activist–not the least biased of sources). I would expect the governor of a breadbasket state like Iowa to have some contact with large bio-companies like Monsanto. I wouldn’t want him to ignore the issues of regular people, but ignoring the issues facing large companies also seems shortsighted.

I’m most concerned about Vilsack’s support of biofuels. Personally, I don’t think it’s as promising a source of energy as other areas we can focus on, like power generation, fuel efficiency, and new types of vehicles. However, Obama is a firm believer in biofuels, at least in the short term, so it’s not surprising that Vilsack mirrors this.

Although I’m not overjoyed by Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture, I don’t hate him as much as many others seem to. Partly, I think now is a bad time to be making vast changes to our agricultural system. There are lots of problems with the American agriculture industry, but it’s definitely great at producing cheap food. Heading into a recession and possible depression, that might not be a bad trade-off to make.

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4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    arduous said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 12:37 am

    Things could be worse than Vilsack, I’ll readily admit that. But, in my opinion, the global food industry is intensely problematic and needs to be overhauled sooner rather than later.

    My biggest problem with Vilsack is his support for corn biofuels. I’m not opposed to all biofuels, but I think it’s become increasingly clear that corn is an incredibly inefficient source for biofuel. To me, a recession is no time to be turning more and more valuable food into biofuel.

    I’m also not completely against GMOs. I think there could be value to GMOs, but the truth is that a lot of GMOs have not received proper study and are poorly regulated. There have been cases where GMO corn grown specifically for livestock has ended up in human food. I also believe there should be standard GMO labeling on food, which there isn’t. American consumers should have the right and ability to avoid GMO food if they choose to do so.

    By the way, I’m not pro change for change’s sake. I was very happy that Obama nominated Clinton for Sec of State, because I think that while she will obviously make changes, she is likely to be a very moderate voice, foreign policy wise. But when it comes to the food industry, I do believe change is necessary. And I believe it needs to be sooner rather than later. The current system of US subsidies also undermine food economies in the Global South, because IMF policies don’t allow a lot of countries in the South to have the same subsidies on crops that the US and Europe enjoy. Basically, the way the global food industry is set up tilts the playing field very much in favor of the Global North. Given that I think the South will experience the worst effects of any sort of crisis, I think this is something that needs to be addressed now and not later.

  2. 2

    arduous said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 12:44 am

    Also, I hardly vilified Vilsack. All I said was that he was ‘more of the same,’ which I think most of his policies seem to reflect. I don’t think Vilsack is going to be pushing to get rid of farm subsidies or anything like that. I also said we would need to keep pestering him to make changes, which … well I think we need to be pestering everyone. As I wrote in the comments, I’m thrilled Vilsack is pro-pastured pork and pro-gay marriage (not that the gay marriage thing is particularly relevant, but I’m pro any politician who is pro gay marriage.)

  3. 3

    Will said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    I agree with you that biofuels is a seriously dumb approach right now. That’s the biggest concern I have with Vilsack as well. I’m not sure how much influence the US Secretary of Agriculture has over global food production (although obviously, US food production is a big part of that), so I’m not sure Vilsack should be evaluated in those terms.

    GM foods aren’t a big priority to me. I’m not convinced that we gain much as consumers when GM food is labelled. But if that’s an issue that is important to you, you should definitely press Vilsack on it.

    I realized when I wrote it that you probably don’t just value change for change’s sake, but denigrating Obama for making a “non-change” appointment just because change was a big part of his campaign seems wrong to me and I see it a lot (not just as a throw away line, like on your post). So I probably overreacted.

    You certainly didn’t vilify Vilsack and I’m sorry that I connected you with that. The OCA does seem to be vilifying Vilsack and I wanted to point that out. It’s important to push our elected and appointed officials to do the right thing, but part of that is getting a clear picture of what they actually believe.

  4. 4

    Bozzie said,

    December 19, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

    Great post. I joined the “green” movement earlier this month, and I finally decided to help make a difference. Blogs like yours is encouraging and exciting at the same time – my sincere thanks!

    I linked on my blog announcing Obama’s Economic Dream Team, but the information you posted here had good points.

    The more and more we all work together to share information, the better off we all will be. I’ve submitted my own thoughts on living green so if anyone would like to check it out, please do so and contribute!

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