Today, 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.