GENET archive


POLICY & REGULATION: Obama picks Vilsack as U.S. Agriculture secretary

                                  PART 1

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SOURCE: Los Angeles Times, USA

AUTHOR: John McCormick & Mike Dorning


DATE:   17.12.2008

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Reporting from Washington and Chicago -- Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who aggressively campaigned for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton before his state?s caucuses in January, will be named Agriculture secretary by President-elect Barack Obama, three Democratic officials confirmed Tuesday.

The formal announcement was expected this morning at a news conference in Chicago.

Vilsack declined to comment on the report. ?Those questions should be answered by the transition office and the president-elect,? he said.

The former two-term Democratic governor has been a supporter of renewable energy and pushed for development of Iowa?s ethanol industry. The state is one of the nation?s top producers of corn and has a large meat-packing industry.

During the campaign for the Iowa caucuses, Vilsack was the top Clinton official in the state and often appeared with the New York senator. He also frequently questioned Obama?s preparedness for the presidency.

Obama?s team takes shape

» A mixture of old a new faces make up the beginnings of the 44th president?s administration. The nominations must be confirmed by the Senate.

But after Obama won the Democratic nomination, Vilsack campaigned for his general election effort in Iowa and other states.

Vilsack would be the fourth high-level appointment of a former presidential campaign rival to Obama?s team, following Clinton for secretary of State, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden for vice president and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for Commerce secretary.

?He knows production agriculture, and he knows the changes we need to ensure its profitability and future, including for young and beginning farmers and ranchers,? Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement.

Iowa?s Republican senator also endorsed the selection.

?He has a firsthand look at the role of agriculture in our global economy,? Sen. Charles E. Grassley said in a statement. ?I?m happy for him, happy for Iowa, and this is welcome news for agriculture.?

A former mayor and state legislator from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, Vilsack campaigned for president himself, but dropped out of the race in February 2007 after just 86 days of campaigning.

While running for president, he took an unusual position for a farm-state official, arguing to cut subsidies for agricultural commodity crops and channel the money toward improving environmental practices. He has argued that agricultural policy should focus on production of renewable energy. He also wrote newspaper articles before the election in support of Obama?s energy policies.

In an essay published in October, he urged greater investment in cellulosic ethanol, bio-fuel production plants and wind farms, and advocated ?carbon credits? for farmers whose production reduces greenhouse gases associated with global warming.

Some advocates of organic food, meanwhile, have criticized Vilsack as being too supportive of biotechnology company efforts to market genetically modified foods.

In 1998, Vilsack was elected Iowa?s first Democratic governor in 32 years. He won reelection in 2002 but did not run a third time, keeping a term-limit promise he had made.

A native of Pittsburgh, he was one of three finalists to be Sen. John F. Kerry?s running mate in 2004.

                                  PART 2

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SOURCE: The Associated Press, USA



DATE:   17.12.2008

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Tom Vilsack has been a long-shot - and occasionally reluctant - candidate for most of his political life in a career that began as a small-town mayor forced into the job because of a sensational shooting spree.

Born in Pittsburgh, he was orphaned at birth and was adopted by Bud and Dolly Vilsack. During a brief run for the Democratic nomination he talked often of his adoptive mother?s struggles with alcoholism, telling stories of lying in bed and listening to the liquor bottles crashing to the floor. Vilsack, 58, said the experience created a deep longing for stability.

He met Christie Bell at Hamilton College in New York. After he graduated from law school, they settled in Mount Pleasant, a town of 8,700 in far southeast Iowa, and Vilsack joined his father-in-law?s law practice and later coached Little League.

Vilsack said he was charmed by the small-town stability and sense of family he had never known.

In 1987, however, a disgruntled citizen burst into a Mount Pleasant City Council meeting and shot Mayor Edd King to death. With the community traumatized, Vilsack was appointed mayor of the largely Republican city.

In 1992, he won a close election to the state Senate, where he was best known for pushing legislation requiring companies getting state assistance to improve pay and benefits. When Republican Gov. Terry Branstad decided to not to seek re-election after 16 years, Vilsack surprised many by winning a three-way Democratic primary. Even more surprising was his victory over a better-known Republican contender, former congressman Jim Ross Lightfoot.

During his two terms as governor, Vilsack pushed for creation of a $500 million Grow Iowa Values Fund, aimed at spurring a slowing economy. Those economic problems forced him to push for deep budget cuts and eventually furlough 10 percent of the state?s work force.

Although Iowa is one of the nation?s most productive farm states, Vilsack didn?t focus heavily on agricultural issues as governor. However, he was a strong proponent of alternative fuels like corn-based ethanol, which is popular in Iowa, the nation?s biggest producer of corn. He also pushed for big tax breaks for the ethanol industry.

He headed governor groups focusing on biotechnology, ethanol and Midwestern issues, and he eventually headed the Democratic Governors Association. Vilsack also was associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate-leaning group that was prominent under former President Bill Clinton.

Vilsack was generally viewed as a policy wonk with little sense of humor, but he occasionally sought to dent that image by dressing in outlandish cartoon-character outfits to entertain children during gatherings at the governor?s mansion.

Even before leaving office in 2007, Vilsack began flirting with the Democratic presidential nomination, hoping to get a boost from Iowa?s leadoff precinct caucuses. He launched his campaign for the presidency in November 2006 in Mount Pleasant but had difficulty raising money and ended his bid in February 2007.

Only weeks after dropping out, he endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton?s campaign and worked tirelessly for her in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses. His prestige suffered a serious blow when then-Sen. Barack Obama trounced Clinton in those caucuses. After she dropped from the race, Vilsack endorsed Obama.

Since his presidential bid, Vilsack has worked at several jobs, including one at Iowa State University?s Biosafety Institute. In that position, he has a role analyzing the risks and benefits of genetically modified plant and animal products.

Vilsack also endorsed a goal of producing 25 percent of the nation?s energy supply from renewable sources by 2025.

                                  PART 3

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SOURCE: The Des Moines Register, USA

AUTHOR: Editorial


DATE:   17.12.2008

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Approval of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as U.S. secretary of agriculture would put in position a smart, forward-thinking leader at a time when a hungry, fuel-starved world needs better policies shaping American agriculture.

The election of Barack Obama as president and his choice of Vilsack for his Cabinet raise the potential for shifts in policy and funding that would better tap agriculture?s potential for producing renewable energy and enlist farmers in the battle against climate change.

Iowans know that Vilsack fits the general qualifications for the job: He?s thoughtful and pragmatic. He?s experienced in managing government bureaucracy. He?s politically astute.

Any governor of Iowa, perennially the nation?s top producer of corn, soybeans and hogs, has to know a lot about agriculture. But perhaps even more important for this job at this juncture of history, Vilsack is an expert on energy and climate issues.

Agriculture is undergoing a revolution as farmers produce the feedstocks for fuel as well as food and fiber. But that changing role has caused tensions around the globe. Critics have blamed food shortages and rising prices worldwide on using land to grow crops for fuel instead of food (although much of that criticism is overblown). Biofuels production threatens to speed destruction of rainforest and press highly erodible land into production.

Vilsack pushed growth of Iowa?s ethanol industry and has seen it provide jobs in rural Iowa and boost farmers? incomes. But as governor he also pressed for greater environmental stewardship by working to increase funding for water cleanup. The next agriculture secretary needs both an understanding of the economic potential of biofuels and an unswerving commitment to ensuring the industry does not degrade the environment.

Vilsack also was an early champion of developing wind energy as a way to generate electricity from a clean, renewable source, plus provide additional revenue for rural landowners and new jobs from wind-turbine installation and production. That vision fits with Obama?s plans to make clean-energy jobs a major part of his economic-stimulus package.

The next secretary also must lead agriculture in being part of the solution to climate change. Farmers must reduce tillage and change other practices to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, believed responsible for global warming. But if energy policy is shaped appropriately, farmers could earn money by doing so. Vilsack boned up on climate change recently by co-chairing a Council on Foreign Relations task force on the issue.

Vilsack and Obama are in sync on several other needed policy changes. Both favor capping farm subsidies, which have contributed to the trend of bigger farms and fewer people in rural communities. Both have supported measures to ensure independent livestock producers have greater access to markets dominated by big meatpackers.

Vilsack?s promotion of biotechnology won?t make him a popular pick among some organic farmers and opponents of genetically modified crops. It?s true that strict safeguards must be enforced to prevent contamination of conventionally grown plants. Still, the increased yields of genetically modified crops will be crucial to feeding a growing population.

America and the world need visionary leadership to figure out how to produce enough food and fuel to sustain the world?s population while protecting the environment for future generations. Vilsack could help the Obama administration provide that leadership.

                                  PART 4

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SOURCE: Houston Chronicle, USA

AUTHOR: Editorial


DATE:   16.12.2008

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Rules for bioengineered crops need close monitoring

As the Bush administration nears its final weeks, officials are hastily loosening key rules in workplace safety, environmental protection - and soon, perhaps, on American farmlands. This month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began finalizing its oversight rules for genetically modified crops: artificial plant strains with the potential for doing humans great good - and serious long-term harm.

The USDA needs to resist any industry pressure to rush these new rules into effect.

To create genetically modified crops, scientists swap the genes from one microorganism or plant to another plant, in combinations that could never occur naturally. The result might be corn immune to weedkillers; cotton that automatically fends off pests; even ?pharma-plants? that are tiny, green laboratories for cultivating powerful medicines.

It?s easy to see how genetically modified crops might solve a range of ancient problems.

Already, in limited situations, these engineered plants have been a boon for farmers and the environment. The right genetically modified plant could help impoverished farmers avoid costly pesticides, or spare delicate ecosystems from chemical runoffs.

The problem is not that genetically modified crops are in some way ?unnatural? - few plants are as unnatural as domesticated corn or wheat, which require intensive human effort to grow at all.

But as crop engineering advances, the possible side effects from these new products become less and less clear.

Genetically engineered corn, cotton and soy in the United States seem quite safe, according to Greg Jaffe, biotechnology director for The Center for Science in the Public Interest.

But the next generation of genetically modified plants will focus on nutritional enhancements. What happens if a new variety is healthy for humans - but its genetic material, blown by the wind, creates plants fatal for birds or other animals?

A newly created species might also inadvertently contain dangerous allergens, or cross-pollinate with wild plants into a super-invasive hybrid.

The reasonable solution is not banning this promising technology, but applying thoughtful and ongoing oversight. Unfortunately, the USDA?s new rules proposal falls short in several ways.

The agency still lacks a regulation to extend its oversight on genetically modified crops after they?ve gone commercial. This is key: A licensing system for the new plant varieties would keep them under federal jurisdiction in case unforeseen side effects arise much later.

The USDA?s proposed rules are also dangerously vague about the so-called pharma-plants. These tiny drug factories ought to be singled out as high-risk organisms requiring the USDA?s highest level of scrutiny to keep them out of our food supply.

If the goal of industry is to create appealing consumer products, it?s the government?s job to ensure this innovation does no harm. Before they are implemented, the USDA?s new rules for genetically engineered crops need careful review to keep this fast-growing technology as safe as it is desirable.

                                  PART 5

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AUTHOR: Tom Philpott


DATE:   16.12.2008

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Brushing aside pressure, Obama taps a big-ag man as USDA chief

?Tom Vilsack was one of the first governors to see the promise of biotechnology. He has a very balanced view of agriculture and understands its potential.?
-- Ted Crosbie, vice president of global plant breeding and director of Monsanto?s Iowa operations

?Governor Vilsack would be an outstanding choice for Secretary of Agriculture. He would bring great leadership and experience to the position. Governor Vilsack understands what it takes to increase agricultural productivity to meet growing global demand for food and feed.? -- Paul Schickler, president of Dupont?s Pioneer Hi-Bred, one of Monsanto few rivals in the genetically modified seed industry. (Both quoted from a Dec. 16 Des Moines Register piece.)


In 2007, Thomas Vilsack ended an eight-year stint as Iowa?s governor. Before that, he had served as a state senator. During his time in Iowa politics, he promoted the interests of large agribusiness firms in several ways.

As a state senator, he voted for the infamous House File 519 in 1995, which stripped counties of the right to impose restrictions on CAFOs. In 2005, as governor, he signed into law House File 642, which barred local governments from regulating the planting of genetically modified seed.

In 2001, the Biotechnology Industry Organization named him ?governor of the year? for his ?support of the industry?s economic growth and agricultural biotechnology research.? Vilsack also brisky promoted biofuels as governor; he served as chair of the Governors? Ethanol Coalition.

After stepping down after his second term in 2007, Vilsack ran for president. When that bid failed, he joined the Minneapolis-based corporate law firm Dorsey & Whitney. The firm?s broad range of corporate clients include food giants Cargill and Conagra. Accordng to Dorsey & Whitney?s website, Vilsack was hired to focus on ?strategic counseling and advising clients in the fields of energy conservation, renewable energy, and agribusiness development.? He also serves as a distinguished fellow at Iowa State University?s Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products, where he sits on the advisory board with representatives of Monsanto, Dupont?s Pioneer Hi-Bred, and the World Bank.

President-elect Obama has reportedly plucked Vilsack from those posts and tapped him to be USDA chief. The decision comes after a wave of hope that Obama might choose a less agribusiness-oriented candidate. I?ll be writing more on this pick in the days to come.



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