Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack: Harbinger of Sustainability or Ho-Hum?

vilsack.jpegAs Vilsack said in an interview earlier this month, the Department of Agriculture affects every American. The Secretary of Agriculture oversees several departments including the Forest Service, the Food Service and Inspection Service, and the Food Stamp Program. Primary responsibilities include the direction of farm subsidies, food exports, soil and water preservation, national forest preservation, food aid, organic standards, animal disease, and pest control. After considerable lobbying and speculation, at a press conference earlier today, the president-elect announced his selection.
If confirmed by the Senate, Vilsack will take the reigns during a “period of intense volatility in the agriculture industry,” observed Clayton Yeutter, former Secretary of Agriculture under George H.W. Bush. Commodities and agriculture analysts are calling for expediency in addressing farm subsidies and crop prices. Details of subsidy allocation in the farm bill remain unanswered while corn, wheat, and soybean prices fall. Vilsack will also be tasked with balancing the growth of biofuel with food needs and the environmental impact of increased production-a debate at the center of any comprehensive renewable energy initiative.

The rural agenda set forth by the new administration emphasizes Economic Opportunity for Family Farmers and Support for Rural Economic Development. They propose to:

– strengthen anti-monopoly laws and producer protections to ensure independent farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and transparency in prices
-regulate CAFOs and pollution from large factory livestock farms, fine those that violate tough standards, and support local control
-help organic farmers afford certification and reform crop insurance so as not to penalize organic farmers and to promote regional food
-partner with landowners to conserve private lands, increase incentives for farmers and private landowners to conduct sustainable agriculture and protect wetlands, grasslands, and forests
-provide capital for farmers to create value-added enterprises, including cooperative marketing initiatives and farmer-owned processing plants
-establish a small business and micro-enterprise initiative for rural America
-promote leadership in renewable energy

Early commentary reflects a consensus, depicting Vilsack as a middle-of-the-road nominee. Though he was not included in the short list circulated by citizen activists, there is reason to believe that he will be more progressive than many of the other candidates.
In his time as Governor, Vilsack has both supported rural development and brought high-tech agribusiness to Iowa. Yet there were rumors that agricultural trade groups were opposed to his selection.
The next Secretary of Agriculture will manage an annual budget of over $90 billion. Indications of Vilsack’s spending priorities evidence a commitment to education funding and this November, he referenced a congressional report on improper farm payments when discussing the need to cut federal money.
According the LA Times, Vilsack has proposed cutting subsidies for commodity crops and using the money to increase environmental practices. He supports investment in wind farms and offering carbon credits for farmers with green production processes.
The Environmental Working Group has been widely quoted in support of Vilsack’s selection. President Ken Cook says he is encouraged. He believes that Vilsack “thinks we need to reform the subsidy system, he recognizes the importance of the food programs, and he’s very good on conservation.”
In describing the leadership potential offered to the Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack said, “Obama has talked about the use of soft power, and that would be an opportunity to address in a significant way a new day in America, a new approach.” Let’s hope the Governor acts on his remarks and ushers in reform.
As Michael Pollan points out, “The challenge is not just what we do with agriculture, it’s connecting the dots between agriculture and public health, between agriculture and energy and climate change, agriculture and education.” While questions remain, both Vilsack’s political record and his advocacy efforts leave us cautiously optimistic.

Tori conducts research and writes on environmental issues, with a special focus on food justice. Her professional experience in the civic sector and academic background in social and economic development ground her work and belief in a sustainable food system as an achievable human right. Tori is based in Bogota, Colombia where she is pursuing a bilingual, international career in environmental policy.

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