GENET archive


AGRICULTURE & PEOPLE: Greens mixed on Obama’s Agriculture pick

                                  PART 1

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SOURCE: Christian Science Monitor, USA

AUTHOR: Eoin O?Carroll


DATE:   17.12.2008

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Barack Obama announced two more cabinet picks Wednesday ? former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for Agriculture secretary and Colorado Senator Ken Salazar for Interior secretary ? drawing both praise and criticism from environmental groups.

?It?s time for a new kind of leadership in Washington that?s committed to using our lands in a responsible way to benefit all our families,? said the president-elect. ?That is the kind of leadership embodied by Ken Salazar and Tom Vilsack.?

Both departments play a central role in setting the Obama administration?s environmental policies. The Department of Agriculture regulates a host of issues, from organic labeling to pesticides to biofuels, that are dear to greens.

The Department of the Interior, which leases drilling on federal lands and enforces the Endangered Species Act, among many other things, has been rocked by scandal in recent months. In September, a report by the agency?s Inspector General uncovered ?a culture of ethical failure? in the Minerals Management Service, which included graft, drug use, and sexual misconduct with ?[energy] industry contacts.? And another report released this week found pervasive political interference in endangered species decisions.

Tom Vilsack

Mr. Vilsack has been praised by environmentalists for his ambitious call for increased domestic production of renewable energy. Here?s what the Sierra Club had to say about his nomination:

?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. The USDA can take the lead in moving us past the corn-based ethanol of today toward the next-generation biofuels of tomorrow. These next-generation biofuels will not just provide farmers with new sources of income and help us break our dangerous dependence on oil, but they will also help President-Elect Obama achieve his ambitious plans to tackle global warming.?

He was also praised by the League of Conservation Voters, who called him a ?a powerful ally not only to America?s farmers, but to all who would protect our National Forests.?

Other groups claim that the former Iowa governor, who in 2001 was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is far too friendly to Big Ag. The 850,000-member Organic Consumers Association?s chief, Ronnie Cummins, called Obama?s pick a sign of ?the continuation of agribusiness as usual, the failed policies of chemical- and energy-intensive, genetically engineered industrial agriculture.?

?Americans were promised ?change,? not just another shill for Monsanto and corporate agribusiness. Considering the challenges we collectively face as a nation, from climate change and rising energy costs to food insecurity, we need an administration that moves beyond ?business as usual? to fundamental change - before it?s too late.?

Perhaps the most telling quote about Vilsack comes from the Monsanto Company, as quoted in the Des Moines Register [via Grist]:

?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


                                  PART 2

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SOURCE: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA

AUTHOR: Bill Lambrecht


DATE:   17.12.2008

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WASHINGTON  -  At first blush, Barack Obama?s selection today of Tom Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary seems no great gift to reformers.

After all, Vilsack was governor of Iowa, where farmers received $3.76 billion (with a ?b?) in federal crop program payments during the most recent three-year period available, according to the Environmental Working Group data base derived from government records.

That?s more than California, Texas or any other state. (Missouri was 9th with $1.4 billion; Illinois 3rd with $3.3 billion.

Then there?s ethanol, produced in Iowa in twice the quantity of any other state (Nebraska is next) and totaling one-third of the nation?s corn-made biofuel.

Last month, ethanol subsidies in the U.S. celebrated their 30th birthday, with taxpayers committing billions of dollars annually for ethanol production in addition to guaranteeing ethanol makers a market with something called the renewable fuels mandate.

We?ve all heard the food v. fuel debate and the controversies over the water (1 million gallons-plus of water per dayper average plant) and other environmental costs of ethanol. Yet the pro-ethanol farm lobby in Congress seems to always carry the day.

So in this new era of limits, how will Vilsack?s stewardship of the Agriculture Department be recalled?

Agriculture secretaries tend to be remembered when other cabinet members are forgotten. Many recall Henry Wallace, the Confucius-spouting corn breeder (from Iowa) who became a champion of food reserves and soil conservation.

There was Earl Butz, whose 1960s exhortation to farmers to plant ?fence row to fence row,? helped promote farm prosperity while sacrificing protective buffers. Too bad Butz is remember mostly for an awful joke.

You might remember Bob Bergland in the 1970s speaking passionately about the loss of family farms or Mike Espy, the first African-American ag secretary.

Dan Glickman, who irritated fellow Clinton administration biotech devotees by raising legitimate questions about genetic engineering, is still in the Washington game as head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

For Vilsack, an ardent supporter of ethanol, a big test will come early with the Iowa-centric biofuels industry seeking more taxpayer money  -  this time billions in assistance in the stimulus package now being crafted.

We?ll also be able to see soon how vigorously Vilsack pushes Obama?s proposal to cap subsidies to ?millionaire farmers.?

Farm groups and advocacy organizations were quick to praise Vilsack. (It?s not customary for somebody to pan an appointee they?ll be dealing with.)

The Natural Resources Defense Council said Vilsack would be a good fit for the job with leadership that could clean up national forests and better deal with genetically modified crops. (Remember that the U.S. Forest Service is part of the Agriculture Department.)

The Consumer?s Union observed that Vilsack ?will face enormous challenges in taking this huge bureacracy and making it work better in areas like food safety and nutrition.?

The Environmental Working Group?s Craig Cox, who is based in Iowa, recalled Vilsack statements critical of farm subsidies. In Vilsack, Cox said he sees the potential of a ?Nixon to China? element as far as ?putting the breaks on this headlong expansion of corn ethanol regardless of what we?ve learned about its impact on the environment and commodity prices ? It could make it easier for him because he can speak credibly on this issue, even in Iowa.?

                                  PART 3

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AUTHOR: Brian Hartman & Sunlen Miller


DATE:   18.12.2008

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President-elect Obama?s choice for Agriculture Secretary -- former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack -- is facing some heat this morning.

Just yesterday, Obama praised Vilsack for being someone who would bring a ?new kind of leadership to Washington.?

But reports this morning have many wondering if Vilsack means agribusiness as usual?

The Politico reports that Vilsack and his wife have collected $48,782 in farm subsidies. During his presidential campaign, Obama called this ?waste? and said that he would cut high-dollar farm subsidies given to farmers and corporations as a way to slim down budgets.

The Obama transition team tells Politico Vilsack?s subsidies are ?relatively meager? and they insist Obama will still push for reform at the agency.

Vilsack also faces questions about lobbying. He works in the law firm Dorsey & Whitney in Des Moines, which is said to have given advice about agribusiness. Obama has promised that lobbyists will not work in his White House, meaning that lobbyists can not work on subjects that are related to their former employer, for two years.

Though Vilsack is not a registered lobbyist, this blurs the lines a bit. And those who want a wholesale change in agriculture policy hope for the best but fear Vilsack ?s record in Iowa points to ?more of the same? at USDA.

At a time when many are calling for food safety and hunger to be higher priorities, Vilsack signals the focus may be more on biofuels and biotech.

He?s been accused by some critics with being too closely allied with the genetically modified food industry.

On NPR this morning, bestselling author Michael Pollan, who wrote ?In Defense of Food? and ?Omnivore?s Dilemma,? provided his review of Vilsack?s nomination.

?I was very disappointed in that news conference ... not to hear Vilsack use the word ?food? -- or ?eaters.? And the interests of everybody except eaters was discussed: farmers, ranchers, people concerned about the land.? Pollan said it seems the choice may be just ?agribusiness as usual.?

Jim Harkness, who promotes sustainable agriculture as president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, also worries about Vilsack.

?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,? Harkness said. ?But these are unconventional times.?

But the Consumer Federation of America greeted Vilsack?s nomination with hope, releasing a statement forecasting, ?We believe he will work to reform USDA and return it to the role that President Lincoln envisioned, the people?s department.?

And despite his worries, Pollan says he remains ?cautiously hopeful? that Vilsack will ?take a broader view? in the federal government than he did in Iowa.

                                  PART 4

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SOURCE: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, USA

AUTHOR: Press Release


DATE:   17.12.2008

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Stabilizing Agriculture Markets, Promoting Sustainability and Health Must Be Top Priorities

Minneapolis ? President-elect Barack Obama?s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack must shift the agency?s focus toward stabilizing volatile agriculture commodity prices, improving market competition, supporting sustainable farming systems and encouraging the production of healthier food, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

?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. ?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 number one challenge in agriculture is extreme price volatility - the spikes and drops in farm gate and food prices causing enormous problems for farmers, consumers and the environment. Farmers could face a very difficult 2009 with commodity prices dropping, while fertilizer, land and seed costs remain high.

?His first test will be to address the volatility that has caused havoc in agriculture over the last several years,? said IATP?s Rural Communities Program Director Jim Kleinschmit. ?We can?t make the changes we need in agriculture, like expanding environmentally sustainable farming systems or greater production of healthier food, without stabilizing prices for farmers and consumers. To fix deregulated agriculture markets we must have greater antitrust enforcement and market transparency, such as the ban on packer ownership of feedlots. ?

The U.S. agriculture economy is undergoing a transition on many fronts. Other key challenges facing new Secretary Vilsack include:

- 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 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.

?Secretary Vilsack faces a tall order. We look forward to working with him,? said Harkness. IATP works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems.

                                  PART 5

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SOURCE: Consumer Federation of America (and others), USA

AUTHOR: Press Release


DATE:   11.12.2008

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USDA Concerned With More Than Maximizing Commodity Production, According to Consumer Coalition

WASHINGTON?Much of the media speculation on who the next Secretary of Agriculture will be focuses on candidates lacking experience with food safety, nutrition, or environmental issues?issues which are at the heart of the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s mission.

Consumer advocates and other public interest groups are today urging President-Elect Barack Obama to appoint an individual who appreciates the diversity of programs administered by the $95-billion-a-year department, as opposed to a candidate whose primary experience involves large-scale agricultural production.

?USDA?s food assistance programs are vital to helping millions of Americans survive in this time of high unemployment and high food prices,? the groups wrote.

?Considering the contribution of the American diet to obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems, USDA must be more aggressive in promoting healthier diets.? The groups further pointed out that the Government Accountability Office had recently identified food safety as one of 13 ?urgent issues? needing the attention of the next Administration. ?USDA has a responsibility for assuring the safety of the nation?s meat, poultry, and processed egg supply and the Secretary must lead the way in addressing this urgent issue,? the groups wrote.

The groups, which included the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumers Union, Safe Tables Our Priority, Food & Water Watch, the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, the Government Accountability Project, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, also cited agriculture?s contribution to global climate change and urged that the next Secretary pay attention to soil and water conservation issues. ?President Lincoln, who established the USDA, referred to it as the ?people?s department,?? said Carol Tucker-Foreman, Distinguished Fellow at Consumer Federation of America?s Food Policy Institute. ?Unfortunately, USDA has lost its way. It is now dominated by a collection of special interests, far removed from the people it is supposed to serve. Given the pressing issues of hunger, food safety and the environment, we urge President-Elect Obama to honor Lincoln?s vision and choose a leader who can restore the mantle of ?people?
 s department.?

?The next agriculture secretary should think of himself or herself as a Secretary of Food, someone who wants to promote the consumption of safe and healthy diets?and diets that minimally harm the environment,? said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson, a signatory of the letter.

?Regrettably, current USDA policies fall far short of that goal.?



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