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Thoughts on Obama's USDA pick

"Tom understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home," Barack Obama declared Wednesday, hailing his pick for USDA chief, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. "That's the kind of leader I want in my Cabinet."

Great. Rather than an advocate for a new, more sustainable, just, and healthy food system, we got someone who's going to focus on burning food in car engines. (Hat tip to Raj Patel for that line.)

People in the sustainable-ag world -- including me -- are having a tough time time accepting that Obama has picked an a ethanol-loving GMO enthusiast as his USDA chief.

But then again, Obama himself is a strong supporter of both GMOs and ethanol, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprised.

The question now becomes: What next? From a food/ag-reform perspective, is there anything to love in the former Gov. of Iowa?

No one has strained harder to find find the positive in Vilsack than John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs, a progressive farm-policy advocacy group based in Nebraska.

In a post written when Vilsack was widely rumored to be Obama's pick -- before temporarily dropping out of the running -- Crabtree recounted a recent interview with the former governor.

Crabtree reports that Vilsack came out in favor of labeling GMO food (a decision that falls under FDA, not USDA) and for "preserving and strengthening the integrity of the approval process for new biotechnologies." (From what I can tell, such a process barely exists).

Both of those positions are highly offensive to the ag-biotech industry; it would be awesome if Vilsack pursued them.

Crabtree also paints Vilsack as a champion of a cause that's dear to my heart: livestock-market reform. As it is, a few companies slaughter the great majority of farm-animals in this country, giving them tremendous leverage to dictate price and conditions to farmers. Vilsack claimed he do what no USDA chief has done in years: enforce what (paltry) laws we have that limit meatpacker power.

You don't get through Crabtree's account elated that we finally have a president looking to move food/ag policy in new directions; but you do get the idea that Obama could have done worse.

Crabtree doesn't touch on ethanol. One of the best sources I've seen on that comes from a Grist interview during Vilsack's short-lived presidential bid in 2007. Vilsack emerges as a major ethanol booster, one willing to essentially write blank government checks to boost the industry.

Get this:

Our plan calls for a 25-cent-per-gallon credit for the production of ethanol from cellular fiber [i.e, cellulosic ethanol]. Currently, there is a 51-cent-per-gallon blender credit, which is taken by any entity that blends ethanol into gasoline. Our 25-cent-per-gallon tax credit would be on top of that and would go directly to cellulosic-ethanol producers to grow the market and get the industry going strong.

He adds this:

[O]ur goal is to have 60 billion gallons of renewable fuel produced by
2030, and 45 billion of that from non-corn sources such as cellulosic
ethanol, bio-butanol, and biodiesel.

That means that by 2030, Vilsack would like to commit $34.2 billion (45 billion gallons times $0.76 in tax breaks) every year to cellulosic ethanol, plus an additional $7.65 billion for corn-based ethanol (15 billion gallons times $0.51). Grand total: $41.85 billion -- ever year. Now that's love.

Big Green groups, for their part, have issued bland endorsements of the purported new ag secretary. "Governor Vilsack can play an important role in helping to bring about the clean energy economy in a way that benefits both farmers and rural communities and our environment," Sierra Club declared.

"As Governor, he worked to protect Iowa's environment and the health of its people," League of Conservation Voters enthused.

Some smaller, more grassroots groups reacted less positively. The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which has been in a hard-scrabble fight against the CAFOization of Iowa's rural communities for years, might disagree with the League of Conservation Voters' assessment of Vilsack's environmental record. Under his watch, CAFOs expanded dramatically. In an emailed press release (not yet available online), the group stated:

Time will tell if Gov. Vilsack and the USDA will succeed in standing up to factory farms and other corporate ag groups. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement will continue to hold critical decision-makers accountable to everyday Iowans."

The Organic Consumers Union offered a less-restrained statement: "Today's announcement that former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack, has been selected as the new secretary of agriculture sent a chill through the sustainable food and farming community who have been lobbying for a champion in the new administration.

One longtime Visack watcher, the Des Moines Register's ag correspondent Phil Brasher, puts it like this:

The Obama administration ... will get an agriculture secretary who is sympathetic to big agribusiness that dominates Iowa and a believer in biofuels and agricultural biotechnology. In short, Vilsack is not likely to shift the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a radical new direction as many of Obama's liberal supporters had hoped.

Editorial Notes: I guess we're not going to get Michael Pollen as Ag Secretary, as some had wistfully opined in the blogosphere. Sharon Astyk is more forthright: Vilsack and Obama: Farmer-in-Chief my ass! -BA

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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