Two Minnesota groups concerned about Vilsack as ag secretary


Our colleagues at the Iowa Independent hail Gov. Tom Vilsack, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for agriculture secretary, as a “consummate pragmatist” who has “endeared himself to both the left and the right.” But one group that’s not so fond of Obama’s selection is the Finland, Minn.–based Organic Consumers’ Association. It reacted to today’s announcement with a petition calling for organic producers and consumers to urge Obama to block the nomination, highlighting Vilsack’s support for factory farming and biotechnology.

Last month the OCA outlined six reasons they oppose Vilsack for the job, including his support for genetically modified plants and animals, Vilsack’s apparently cozy relationship with Monsanto (the OCA says he’s been known to use the company’s jet), and his advocacy of plant-derived biofuels, “which use as much or more fossil energy to produce them as they generate, while driving up world food prices and literally starving the poor.” (The Iowa Independent’s Chase Martyn reports that Vilsack has “subtly tempered his enthusiasm for corn-based ethanol over the course of his candidacy, shifting to a more tenable position in favor of all forms of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels, using corn ethanol merely as a ‘transitional fuel.’”)

Obama’s words at this morning’s press conference might suggest that the OCA’s petition drive won’t sway his opinion about Vilsack. He hailed the Iowan for, among other things, “promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers and fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat but the energy that we use.”

Meanwhile, Minneapolis’ Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy expressed its reservations about Vilsack as well, echoing several of the points made in Martyn’s piece — namely, that Vilsack’s conservative track record doesn’t suggest he’ll bring real change to the office.

“As Iowa’s Governor, Vilsack has shown a fairly conventional perspective on agriculture — particularly related to biotechnology and the siting of factory farms — that seems to indicate a status quo approach,” said IATP President Jim Harkness in a statement. “But these are unconventional times, and with his charge to implement the national vision for agriculture of President-elect Obama, he has an opportunity to address the concerns of farmers — big and small, organic and conventional — and consumers, as well as environmental challenges facing the country.”

The organization, founded by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, sees volatility in commodity pricing as a big problem the ag secretary must face, but listed other areas it hopes Vilsack pays attention to:

· The bioeconomy is trying to rapidly transition from corn-based ethanol toward more sustainable feedstocks. But what was once a primarily farmer-owned industry is increasingly being dominated by absentee corporate owners, providing fewer community benefits.

· Consumers want more organic, locally produced and healthier food, but government programs still offer relatively little support and multiple obstacles to meet this market demand.

· As the number of farmers declines and the average farmers’ age rises, significant barriers prevent much-needed new farmers from entering the sector.

· Along with adapting to climate change, agriculture is being identified as both a contributor and possible mitigator of climate change. The USDA will have to lead a shift toward a climate-friendly agriculture.

· A rising number of major food recalls and internal government audits have exposed serious weaknesses in the USDA’s food safety oversight.

Text of the Organic Consumers Association petition:

Despite a massive public outcry, including over 20,000 emails from the Organic Consumers Association, President-Elect Obama has chosen former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to be the next Secretary of Agriculture.

While Vilsack has promoted respectable policies with respect to restraining livestock monopolies, his overall record is one of aiding and abetting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or factory farms and promoting genetically engineered crops and animal cloning. Equally troubling is Vilsack’s support for unsustainable industrial ethanol production, which has already caused global corn and grain prices to skyrocket, literally taking food off the table for a billion people in the developing world.

The Organic Consumers Association is calling on organic consumers and all concerned citizens to join our call to action and block Vilsack’s confirmation as the next Secretary of Agriculture. Please help us reach our goal of 100,000 petition signatures against Vilsack’ nomination. Sign today!

More: The environmental site Grist on why Vilsack’s a “big-ag man,” and Bluestem Prairie looks at other responses in Minnesota.