President-elect Obama announced his pick for Secretary of Agriculture yesterday, naming former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to the post. Vilsack is not one of the boldly different, sustainable candidates many of us were hoping for. Nonetheless, there are reasons not to give up hope.
Vilsack is known as a strong proponent of biotechnology, in fact he was named Governor of the Year by the largest biotech industry group. Just last week, in a case similar to the Starlink genetically-modified (GMO) corn that was accidentally released, Monsanto admitted that unapproved GMO cotton was harvested and may have entered the livestock feed supply. And the US General Accountability Office said that more incidents of unauthorized releases could have occurred and gone unnoticed, contradicting what biotech companies tell us — that these organisms can be contained. While the USDA works to dismantle barriers to GMOs being tested and approved, the GAO and legislators from farm states who understand that these breaches threaten the markets and livelihoods of farmers (and the safety of our food supply) are calling for more regulation. Tom Vilsack has vehemently denied that he is in the pocket of the biotech industry; now he'll get a chance to prove it.
As governor of Iowa, Vilsack is viewed as having protected the interests of factory farms and biotechnology corporations over the interests of family farmers and eaters.
On the other hand, he did accomplish one thing for family farmers in Iowa: he was successful in implementing legislation that gives market and price protection to family farmers raising livestock. Additionally, Vilsack has spoken about the need for reform of the U.S. farm subsidy system. He believes that farm payments should reward farmers for practices that protect our water supply and build up our soil, rather than rewarding the largest corporate farms that are the most egregious polluters.
While his actions as governor leave much to be desired in terms of demonstrating a commitment to the kind of sustainable, family farm agriculture we're working toward, in recent interviews Vilsack's words have demonstrated that it is still possible for agricultural policy change at the cabinet level. Perhaps as a representative of US agriculture and not simply the agriculture of one state, Vilsack's policies will be more encompassing of all of us — farmers and eaters alike.
In farm state stump speeches, President-elect Obama said he wants a Department of Agriculture, not a Department of Agribusiness. At Farm Aid 2005 in Chicago, Illinois, he said, "When [farmers] can diversify and ... we can in fact produce... healthier food and more profits can go into the hands of family farmers as opposed to the big food processors and mega businesses, then I think we are doing well for everybody." Regardless of his choice for Secretary of Agriculture, Farm Aid holds Obama to his word and believes that together we can create the family farm system of agriculture that results in strong local economies, a clean environment, green energy, healthy citizens and good food.