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AGRICULTURE & PEOPLE: What does Vilsack’s appointment mean for the future of organic food and public lands?



                                  PART 1


------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  WHAT DOES VILSACK?S APPOINTMENT MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF ORGANIC FOOD AND PUBLIC LANDS?

SOURCE: AlterNet, USA

AUTHOR: Ari LeVaux

URL:    http://www.alternet.org/environment/113798/what_does_vilsack?s_appointment_mean_for_the_future_of_organic_food_and_public_lands/

DATE:   18.12.2008

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WHAT DOES VILSACK?S APPOINTMENT MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF ORGANIC FOOD AND PUBLIC LANDS?

Vilsack?s endorsement by big enviros and his vilification by food and small farms groups is not surprising. His record requires close examination.

When former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack?s name first surfaced as a possible Secretary of Agriculture, it triggered an outcry among progressive foodies. The Organic Consumers Association organized a massive campaign in which 20,000 emails opposing Vilsack were sent to the transition team.

The OCA prematurely declared this campaign a success, when Vilsack?s name appeared to have been dropped from consideration. High on hope, hype, and the smell of big-ag blood, a swarm of foodies rushed in to suggest reform-minded alternatives. But these hopes were tossed under the bus on Wednesday, December 17, when Obama formally announced Vilsack as his choice after all.

Obama said his former rival for the White House has ?led with vision, 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 we use?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.?

That Vilsack is a proponent of ethanol and biotech shouldn?t come as a surprise, as Obama campaigned on the same page.

Both politicians support corn-based ethanol as a transitional fuel source while we move toward more advanced cellulosic ethanol made from agricultural waste. And while some had hoped that the President-elect was simply playing politics and telling Iowans what they wanted to hear in order to win the caucus there, Obama has at least also stayed true to his hard line position against big agricultural subsidies by nominating Vilsack, who is a rare farm state politician against that kind of pork.

Also to Vilsack?s credit, his support of ethanol is part of a ?kitchen sink? strategy that he believes is necessary to combat global warming; during his brief bid for the Democratic nomination he advocated a 75 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.

Meanwhile, during his run, Vilsack told Grist in a February, 2007 interview that he wants to promote organic farming. This may sound nice to foodies, but it?s actually quite an ambiguous statement given that USDA controls the very definition of ?organic.? And the plot thickens when you consider that the Biotechnology Industry Council, which named Vilsack ?Governor of the Year? in 2001, has been pushing to expand the definition of USDA Organic to include cloned animals.

Oxymoronic as organically-grown cloned beef may sound, that remains a possibility, especially with Vilsack at the helm. He?s been a cheerleader for TransOva, an Iowa corporation that specializes in bovine cloning, and a host of other services, that could make it possible for cows to never have sex again.

Meanwhile, Vislack is reported to have frequently palled around with Monsanto executives while governor, including taking rides on the corporate jet. And perhaps most troubling for local agricultural interests is Vilsack?s support of legislation that would take away the rights of cities and counties to restrict the use and distribution of genetically modified seeds, and leave those decisions in the hands of the state.

Just about the only positive thing that can be said about Vilsack, from a GMO-skeptical viewpoint, is that he supports labeling of GM ingredients in food.

In addition to food safety and security, rural economies and livelihoods, and other issues usually associated with agriculture, the USDA also has a big effect on environmental quality -- both for reasons related to agricultural practices and because the Secretary of Agriculture oversees (don?t ask me why) the Forest Service, and our nation?s 192 million acres of national forests and grasslands.

According to Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute in Missoula, Mont., ?I?d have a hard time believing that the former governor of Iowa has much experience with the myriad of issues facing public lands management. Hopefully, he realizes that forest ecosystems are very different from agriculture crops.?

In an interview last May, then candidate Barack Obama told me: ?As president, I would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to strictly monitor and regulate pollution from large factory farms, with tough fines for those that violate environmental standards. I also support efforts to provide more meaningful local control over these factory farms.?

Where Vilsack stands on these points is not entirely clear. According to Tom Philpott of Grist, concentrated animal confinement operations (CAFOs) ?expanded dramatically? in Iowa while Vilsack was governor. In addition to driving smaller operations out of business, CAFO?s are known as some of the worst polluters of any industry.

On the other hand, in 2004 Vilsack vetoed a bill that would have expanded the ability of CAFO?s to pollute the air, and in 2006 he vetoed a bill that would have limited the Iowa Department of Natural Resources? authority in granting permits to CAFOs.

Perhaps it?s safe to say that if Vilsack won?t work against factory farms, he?ll at least clean them up.

This kind of centrism has earned Vilsack lukewarm endorsements from some of the larger mainstream environmental organizations like Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Off the record, employees of such groups have made statements to me along the lines of ?Obama could have picked worse.?

The Organic Consumers Association, meanwhile, is back on the warpath, having launched StopVilsack.org in hopes of mobilizing opposition to Vilsack?s Senate confirmation through an online petition.

Koehler, of WildWest, sees the divide among activist groups, with regard to Vilsack?s appointment, as a case of the ??haves? (well funded, politically connected groups that have forfeited their voices for the sake of politics and money) and the ?have nots? (small, grassroots groups, unbeholden, who speak their minds).?

The Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska, is opting for the pragmatic approach. ?We will work with Vilsack to keep rural entrepreneurship, agricultural conservation, and family farming and ranching at the forefront of these critical debates,? Steph Larsen, Rural Policy Organizer, told me.

The CFRA is collecting signatures for an open letter to Mr. Vilsack, urging others to add comments about their priorities here.

?Many of the decisions about the day to day operations of USDA are made by other political appointments besides the Secretary of Agriculture, and we need good partners there too,? Larson adds. ?We are especially interested in the allies to fill Under Secretary of Rural Development; USDA General Counsel; Under Secretary of Research, Education and Economics; Natural Resource Conservation Service Chief; and Under Secretary of Marketing and Regulatory Affairs.?



                                  PART 2

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  TOM VILSACK?S KIND OF AGRICULTURE

SOURCE: OpEdNews, USA

AUTHOR: Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumer Association, USA

URL:    http://www.counterpunch.org/cummins12182008.html

DATE:   18.12.2008

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TOM VILSACK?S KIND OF AGRICULTURE

 

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read also:

Vilsack is not just totally pro-biotech, he is committedly anti-democracy

OpEdNews, USA, by Linn Cohen-Cole, 18 Dec 2008

http://www.opednews.com/articles/Vilsack-is-not-just-totall-by-Linn-Cohen-Cole-081218-394.html

Obama Kills Hope for Change Naming Vilsack to USDA

http://www.opednews.com/articles/Obama-Kills-Hope-for-Chang-by-Pamela-Drew-081217-597.html

OpEdNews, USA, by Pamela Drew, 17 Dec 2008

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Another Shill for Monsanto

Yesterday?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.

?Vilsack?s nomination sends the message that dangerous, untested, unlabeled genetically engineered crops will be the norm in the Obama Administration,? said Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of Organic Consumers Association. ?Our nation?s future depends on crafting a forward-thinking strategy to promote organic and sustainable food and farming, and address the related crises of climate change, diminishing energy supplies, deteriorating public health, and economic depression.?

The Department of Agriculture during the Bush Administration failed to promote a sustainable vision for food and farming and did not protect consumers from the chemical-intensive toxic practices inherent to industrial agriculture. While factory farms and junk food have been subsidized with billions of tax dollars, the US industrial farm system has released massive amounts of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and increased our dependence on foreign oil.

The Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its $97 billion annual budget, including the National Organic Program, food stamp and nutrition programs, agriculture subsidies, and the Forest Service.

While Vilsack has worked to restrain livestock monopolies, his overall record is one of aiding and abetting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs, also known as factory farms). Vilsack?s support for unsustainable industrial ethanol production has already caused global corn and grain prices to skyrocket, literally taking food off the table for a billion people in the developing world.

Over the past month, Organic Consumers Association members have sent over 20,000 emails to President-Elect Obama?s Transition Team, calling for the appointment of a Secretary of Agriculture who would develop and implement a plan that promotes family-scale farming, a safe and nutritious food system, and a sustainable and organic vision for the future.

?Obama?s choice for Secretary of Agriculture points to the continuation of agribusiness as usual, the failed policies of chemical- and energy-intensive, genetically engineered industrial agriculture,? said Cummins. ?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,? concluded Cummins.

Vilsack?s business as usual positions have included the following:

·  Vilsack has been a strong supporter of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops, especially pharmaceutical corn.

·  The biggest biotechnology industry group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, named Vilsack Governor of the Year. He is also the founder and former chair of the Governor?s Biotechnology Partnership.

·  When Vilsack created the Iowa Values Fund, his first poster child for economic development was Trans Ova and their pursuit of cloning dairy cows.

·  The undemocratic 2005 seed pre-emption bill was the Vilsack?s brainchild. The law strips local government?s right to regulate genetically engineered seed.

·  Vilsack is an ardent supporter of corn and soy based biofuels, which use as much or more energy to produce as they generate and drive up world food prices, literally starving the poor.

The OCA has launched an online petition campaign at www.stopvilsack.org to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to oppose Vilsack?s Senate confirmation.

Additionally, OCA?s nationwide network of 850,000 organic consumers are urging members of Congress to move beyond business as usual and implement a comprehensive strategy for organic food and farming in 2009 and beyond.

Ronnie Cummins is director of the Organic Consumers Alliance. He can be reached at: ronnie@organicconsumers.org.

*****

Stop Vilsack?s Confirmation as Secretary of Agriculture

http://www.stopvilsack.org

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! Your email will be sent to your Senators and the President-Elect?s office.



                                  PART 3

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  OBAMA PICKS PRO-ETHANOL, AGRIBUSINESS EX-IOWA GOV. TOM VILSACK TO HEAD AGRICULTURAL DEPT.

SOURCE: Democracy Now, USA

AUTHOR: Juan Gonzalez & Amy Goodman

URL:    http://www.democracynow.org/2008/12/18/obama_picks_pro_ethanol_former_iowa

DATE:   18.12.2008

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OBAMA PICKS PRO-ETHANOL, AGRIBUSINESS EX-IOWA GOV. TOM VILSACK TO HEAD AGRICULTURAL DEPT.

 

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Real Video Stream

http://play.rbn.com/?url=demnow/demnow/demand/2008/dec/video/dnB20081218a.rm&proto=rtsp&start=00:09:21

Real Audio Stream

http://play.rbn.com/?url=demnow/demnow/demand/2008/dec/audio/dn20081218.ra&proto=rtsp&start=00:09:21

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President-elect Barack Obama has officially nominated former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to head the Agriculture Department. The pro-ethanol Vilsack will manage a staff of more than 105,000 and a budget of more than $95 billion. We discuss Vilsack?s nomination with Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association and Brian Moore of the National Audubon Society.

Guests:

Brian Moore, Director, Budget and Appropriations, National Audubon Society.

Ronnie Cummins, Executive Director of the Organic Consumers Association.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today, we will spend the hour discussing some of President-elect Barack Obama?s latest picks for his cabinet. On Wednesday, Obama officially nominated former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to head the Agriculture Department and Colorado Senator Ken Salazar to serve as Secretary of the Interior Department.

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: Together, they will serve as guardians of the American landscape on which the health of our economy and the well-being of our families so heavily depend.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We will discuss the nomination of Ken Salazar in a few minutes, but first we turn to Tom Vilsack.

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: To lead a Department of Agriculture that helps unlock the potential of a twenty-first century agricultural economy, I can think of no one better than Tom Vilsack. As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision, 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. 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. That?s the kind of leader I want in my cabinet.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack will manage a staff of more than 105,000 and a budget of more than $95 billion.

>From 1999 to 2007, Vilsack served as the Democratic governor of Iowa. After a brief run for the presidency in 2007, he worked as an attorney for a corporate law firm that has represented food giants Cargill and ConAgra. He is a strong backer of biofuels and genetically engineered crops. In 2001, the Biotechnology Industry Organization named Vilsack Governor of the Year. On the issue of farm subsidies, he has supported reducing government subsidies of factory farms.

This is part of what Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday after being nominated to be Agriculture Secretary.

TOM VILSACK: As a small-town lawyer, I had the responsibility of helping farm families during tough economic times. I know these people. America?s farmers and ranchers deserve a Secretary of Agriculture that respects them for the contribution they make to all of us every day. I hope to be that secretary. I look forward to working with congressional leaders who share the President-elect?s vision of bringing hope to rural America, of being good stewards of our natural resources, of providing American leadership on climate change, and making America a nation truly dedicated to health and nutrition.

AMY GOODMAN: One of Tom Vilsack?s most vocal supporters has been Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. If Vilsack is confirmed, it will mark the first time the Agriculture Secretary and the Senate Agriculture Committee chair are both Iowans.

We are joined right now by two guests. Ronnie Cummins is with us, the executive director of the Organic Consumers Association. He?s joining us via Skype from the town of Finland, Minnesota. We?re also joined in Washington, D.C. by Brian Moore of the National Audubon Society.

Brian Moore, let?s begin with you. What do you think of Governor Vilsack as the pick for Secretary of Agriculture?

BRIAN MOORE: Well, good morning, Amy. Thanks for having the Audubon Society on.

We?re encouraged by the pick of Governor Vilsack, and for various reasons. First of all, we believe it?s someone we can work with. This governor, as governor and as a presidential candidate, has said he would like to reduce global warming emissions by 70 percent by 2050, a nice environmental position, conservation position on reducing global warming gases. He?s also been a supporter of changing the large subsidy scale, large subsidy system, within the Department of Agriculture and, in fact, moving some of that money to the natural resources conservation programs that they run.

And I think there?s something maybe a lot of people don?t understand about the Department of Agriculture and its importance for conservation, for the environment. Two agencies there, the Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, are very large, very large federal agencies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service with, I believe, an office in every county in America and well over a $3 billion budget, which may be the largest conservation budget in the federal government, with the purpose solely of taking private land and putting it in conservation of one way, shape or form. And Governor Vilsack has been a big supporter of those things, was as a presidential candidate. And we look forward to working with him on these really important conservation issues, if he is to become the Secretary of Agriculture.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Brian Moore, do you have any concern about his close relationship with some of these huge agribusiness companies? For instance, he?s been known to fly on Monsanto jets on more than one occasion.

BRIAN MOORE: Well, it?s an interesting question, but agribusiness and agriculture are things - you know, I understand agriculture, while agribusiness is something different. And I believe it?s important to have a Secretary of Agriculture that understands the agriculture system in the United States, and agribusiness is part of that. So the assumption that the nominee for the Secretary of Agriculture is in bed with these people, I?m not sure about it. My assumption is that this is someone from a farm state who understands agriculture and, more importantly for me, understands conservation, understands the need to reduce greenhouse gases.

AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie Cummins, you are executive director of Organic Consumers Association. Your response to Governor Vilsack and Brian Moore?s depiction of him?

RONNIE CUMMINS: Well, the organic community and sustainable ag community are very disappointed in the appointment of Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. You know, Obama promised us change. What he?s given us here at best is small change. We?ve got a big problem; we need big change.

This notion that genetically engineered crops can feed the world or that, you know, corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biofuels can solve the energy crisis are, of course, completely discredited. If they?re serious about solving the climate crisis, they need to take note of the fact that American industrial agriculture uses about 19 percent of all of our fossil fuels and cranks out about 37 percent of our climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases. So if we?re going to solve the climate crisis with a 80 or 90 percent reduction in greenhouse pollution, not 70 percent, we?re going to have to transform America?s energy-intensive, chemical-intensive genetically engineered agricultural system into an organic [inaudible] in transition to organic system, which can sequester 40 percent of all of our greenhouse gases in the soil, which uses 30 to 50 percent less energy and which can produce healthy food, as opposed to the, you know, current food system, which is subsidized factory farms
  and junk food.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you expand particularly on what have been Vilsack?s stands when it comes to genetically modified foods?

RONNIE CUMMINS: Yes. Vilsack has been an ardent promoter, not only of genetically engineered foods and crops, but also of the extremely controversial biopharmaceutical crops, which involves [inaudible] pharmaceutical drugs or industrial chemicals into food crops. Even, you know, quite a few people in the biotech industry are alarmed by these biopharmaceuticals, since you could get dangerous drugs throughout the food supply. But Vilsack supported biopharm crops when he was governor.

He went further than that. In the year 2005, Vilsack championed a law in Iowa that?s been introduced all over the country, backed by Monsanto and the Farm Bureau. This law, this preemption law, as they?re called, basically takes away the right of municipalities or counties to regulate genetically engineered crops. Vilsack rammed this through, even though it?s extremely unpopular with not only consumers, but small farmers. Vilsack has repeated the myth of the biotech industry that genetically engineered crops can help feed the world, when in fact genetically engineered crops do not produce a higher yield. And he?s spoken about their environmental benefits, when the sum total of ten years of genetically engineered crops in the United States have increased the use of pesticides, not decreased them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to just clarify, Ronnie Cummins is speaking to us via Skype. And those of you who use Skype know sometimes it can get hung up a bit, but it?s quite remarkable to talk to him and see him, for those who are watching TV, at - are you at your home now in Finland, Minnesota?

RONNIE CUMMINS: I?m in our office in Finland, Minnesota.

AMY GOODMAN: He?s executive director of Organic Consumers Association. Brian Moore, in studio in the nation?s capital, in Washington, D.C., with the National Audubon Society. Your response to Ronnie Cummins?s critique of Vilsack?

BRIAN MOORE: Well, Audubon doesn?t claim to be experts in genetically modified foods, and we certainly see issues with the increased ability and increased opening up of new lands, lands, native grass prairies, marginal lands, that have provided fantastic wildlife benefit over the last - you know, over the history of our nation, lands that have never been broken into crop. And certainly the invention of some new frost-resistant, drought-resistant food strains and seeds concerns us, because it?s taking what was once a native grass prairie or native grassland, or maybe land that?s not - hasn?t been suitable for agriculture in the past, and causing, of course, tillage, runoff, extra nutrients, those types of things. And so, we?re very concerned about opening up new land and losing wildlife habitat.

At the same time, there are government programs that try to help mitigate that. And we?re big supporters of those. They?re the Natural Resource Conservation Service programs. They?re the Conservation Reserve Program. They?re the Wetlands Reserve Program. They?re Sodbuster, Sodsaver. These programs say, if you do decide to break new ground, ground that has no cropping history, then you?re no longer eligible for subsidies of any kind on that land. So, we are concerned about those things. We come at it from an environmental/wildlife point of view, where we want to provide as much habitat for birds and other wildlife as possible. Row crops and increased row crops certainly have contributed to the loss or the decline of the population of common birds in America. And so, it?s a great concern to us.

But we?re encouraged that Governor Vilsack is someone that we?ll be able to work with and talk with about these issues and encouraged by signs that he has given in previous statements that he is going to be a champion of conservation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Brian Moore, those who reluctantly are supporting Vilsack say that some of the other choices that were being floated out there were even more objectionable. Could you talk about that at all?

BRIAN MOORE: Well, at Audubon, we?re of course nonpartisan, and I know there was a handful of other possible nominees for this position coming from within the House, possibly from within the Senate, or other folks, who, in our opinion, would have taken a much less conservation-minded stance on these issues than Governor Vilsack. So we?re encouraged by his nomination, especially given the very, very important role of the Secretary of Agriculture in conservation and in providing habitat and stopping the flow of nutrient and sediment through our waterways. So, out of the lot, we?re very encouraged that this is the pick.

AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie Cummins, while the Audubon Society is applauding the choice of Governor Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary, he still has to go through the confirmation process in the Senate. What are your plans?

RONNIE CUMMINS: Well, we had an online petition campaign in mid-November to stop Vilsack, and we got about 20,000 people to sign it. And then Vilsack announced on November 24th he was no longer a candidate for the appointment, so we stopped the campaign. Well, we?ve cranked it up again as of yesterday at stopvilsack.org. We intend to get 100,000 or more organic consumers and sustainable ag-minded folks across - [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: Just repeat your last - Ronnie Cummins, just repeat your last two sentences, please. You just got a little hung up there.

RONNIE CUMMINS: OK. We?ve started an online campaign at stopvilsack.org. We need to send a message from hundreds of thousands of organic consumers and sustainable-minded Americans to Obama, to the Senate and to Vilsack, that we want big change, not small change, and that we need to start moving this country toward an energy-efficient, carbon-sequestering, healthy food and farming system that is organic and in transition to organic. We don?t need these biofuels. We don?t need genetically engineered crops. We need to take the climate crisis, the public health crisis, the food crisis seriously and do something about it. We need major change, not small change.

AMY GOODMAN: Ronnie Cummins, thanks for being with us, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, speaking to us from his office in Finland, Minnesota via Skype. Brian Moore, you?ll stay with us to talk about the pick of Ken Salazar as head of - well, Secretary of the Interior. Brian Moore, with the National Audubon Society.



                                  PART 4

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  MICHAEL POLLAN ON VILSACK, AGRICULTURE - AND FOOD

SOURCE: National Public Radio, USA

AUTHOR: Michael Pollan

URL:    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98417440

DATE:   18.12.2008

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MICHAEL POLLAN ON VILSACK, AGRICULTURE - AND FOOD

 

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Listen Now [4 min 23 sec] add to playlist

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Morning Edition, December 18, 2008 · When President-elect Barack Obama chose former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as his secretary of agriculture, he praised Vilsack?s knowledge of both agriculture and energy. But author Michael Pollan says the incoming administration?s focus should be on food and the people who eat it.

Obama announced his selection Wednesday and touted Vilsack?s credentials.

?As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision,? Obama said, ?promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use.?

Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and a leader in the sustainable food movement, said Obama will not make progress on climate change or energy independence  -  or health care, for that matter  -  unless America?s food system is included in the plan.

?The food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases,? Pollan told NPR?s Renee Montagne. ?It is responsible for the catastrophic American diet that is leading 50 percent of us to suffer from chronic disease, and that drives up health care costs.?

A secretary for food, Pollan said, could put the focus on diversifying America?s farms and using local food sources around the nation.

But those topics weren?t in the spotlight when Obama selected Vilsack to be agriculture secretary, said Pollan, who also wrote The Omnivore?s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire.

?I was very disappointed in that news conference,? he said, ?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.?

And so, he said, it?s difficult not to see the choice of Vilsack as ?agribusiness as usual.?

In the months before Vilsack was picked for the post, Pollan wrote an article urging the president-elect to rename the Department of Agriculture as the Department of Food, led by a secretary of food. That did not happen Wednesday.

Pollan also saw ?reasons to be cautiously hopeful? about Vilsack, pointing to his suggestion to cap subsidies and use the money gained to fund conservation efforts. Vilsack also has urged more food production on the local level.

But under the former governor, Iowa?s feedlots expanded  -  and some localities lost the power to control where those feedlots are located, Pollan said.

?I?m hoping that now he will take a broader view,? Pollan said.

As for the possibility that a change in America?s agriculture priorities could raise the cost of food, Pollan said that other factors can also lead to higher prices.

?It?s the embrace of corn-based ethanol that has driven up all food prices,? Pollan said. ?It?s not making agriculture more sustainable.?

And changing the food system could bring savings, he noted, citing Obama?s recent mention of federal subsidies that are paid to wealthy farmers.

?I think if we could back off on ethanol, that will buy us a lot of wiggle room,? Pollan said.

Although Obama and Vilsack have supported corn-based ethanol production in the past, a challenge may come from elsewhere within the new Obama administration, Pollan said. ?The new secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is a pretty fierce critic of corn-based ethanol,? he said, ?and I would imagine will be arguing for moving away from corn as a feedstock for ethanol, toward other crops.

Pollan says he hopes those crops won?t compete with food crops. Viable alternatives to corn-based ethanol could include trees and crop waste  -  even grasses, he said.

?And whether Vilsack and Obama are ready to go there remains to be seen,? Pollan said. ?But certainly, Steven Chu will be pushing them that way.?


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