Vilsack for Agriculture

So, it's Vilsack. If ever a pick was supposed to say, 'there's no cause for alarm, don't anyone panic,' it would be this one.

That is, with the exception of organic consumer activists. They oppose Vilsack on the grounds that he's good buddies with the Monsanto corporation. Monsanto being, in my opinion, an aspect of the Devil incarnate. Their long campaign to end seed-saving as practiced for millenia is about as greedy, shortsighted and wrongheaded a course of action as I can imagine. Their thuggish enforcement policies and ridiculous disregard for public welfare are legend.

This is more or less their business model: Make new, patentable seed varieties for wind-pollinated plants. Buy up and decommission companies selling other kinds of seed. Aggressively check farms not buying our seed to see if some of our stuff blew into their seed stock and mingled with it. Sue to ruination. Repeat.

There's more about how the expense of Monsanto seed, their hold on the purchasing and distribution chains, and the resulting crops' need for ever greater amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides gradually turns farmers into serfs while wrecking the environment, but let's not get into that for the moment. The fact that this genetic contamination gets force-propagated all over the place, and that alternate seed sources have been targeted for shutdown, makes it very difficult to practice organic agriculture. Even the very finance structure of farming reinforces this, as a farmer on contract with Monsanto for a full crop management plan has a guaranteed buyer and is seen as a good credit risk.

I do understand the appeal of GM, though. It sounds nifty. I am myself a huge geek and do love gadgetry and scientific novelty for its own sake, but there's no toy spiffy enough that its coolness can be self-justifying. Public safety and proper ethical guidelines must not get supplanted for either short term gain or curiousity seeking. Until your frankengadget can be reasonably assured to respect the precautionary principles, keep the goddam thing in the lab where it belongs.

Vilsack will need to be watched and pressured on this count with the beadiest of eyes. And considering that Monsanto was represented on the transition team, it isn't as though this lean towards the company and their practices is only a matter of Vilsack's history.

But there's a stance I consider very important for which Vilsack is to be rightly commended, and the Obama team similarly commended for standing up to an entrenched interest: Vilsack supports the right of animal growers to fair access to the courts, open markets with a level playing field for small farmers, and the enforcement of fair and transparent business practices in the livestock industry. John Crabtree, Center for Rural Affairs, from the link:

... I asked Governor Vilsack how USDA should address the challenge of more effective enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act, considering the abysmal record of the Packers and Stockyards Administration over the last decade. He pointed out that the 2008 farm bill contains, for the first time ever, a livestock competition title and that the first priority for USDA's enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act will be proper implementation and aggressive enforcement of the provisions in that title. And, he added, that prioritization includes writing effective rules for enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards prohibition of "unreasonable preferences" in order to prevent price discrimination by packers against family farm livestock producers.

He also told me, "I agree with President-elect Obama's support for the provision in the farm bill that would have prohibited packers from owning livestock - support that he expressed both during the farm bill debate and his campaign. And I agree with Senator Harkin and Senator Grassley who, along with a number of other Senators from farm and ranch states, have been ardent supporters of ending this kind of direct vertical integration by prohibiting packer ownership of livestock."

... Vertical integration decreases market access for family farmers, decreases prices paid to independent producers, and fuels the construction of more and more CAFOs and the demise of more and more family farms. The Senate has twice passed the legislation banning packer ownership of livestock - in two farm bills - but both times it was removed in conference. ...

Enforcement of fair practices has become a joke at the federal level and Iowa is one of the few states where the political establishment has been serious about making up for that lack. Even their worst federal representatives, from a progressive perspective (think Boswell and Grassley), try to hold the line on this issue. As horrible as Monsanto is, Cargill and ConAgra and Tyson's, or any of the other big meatpackers, are every bit as morally culpable for the insanity of our food system and for making life hard on small farmers. That, in turn, makes it much, much harder to keep carbon in the soil, with concentrated animal agriculture responsible for nearly an eye-popping one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization recommending that animal agriculture be decentralized and reintegrated into mixed crop-animal production.

So it's a mix, in my opinion. The chances for getting positive traction on at least one very important issue have gone up considerably with this pick, while other concerns may wind up in a holding pattern.

And hey, as the CfRA blog points out, at least Vilsack believes consumers have a right to have their food labeled properly as to its contents. I'm no Obama, it's really kind of my job to alarm you, but let me just say for now that the public might think very differently about what they're eating if they knew what was in it.

Update [2008-12-16 20:24:59 by Natasha Chart]: You can read some of Vilsack's views on ethanol here. I'm not a fan of corn ethanol, not even a little. Fact remains that it's one of the most politically popular greenwashing projects I know of, probably because of Iowa's electoral significance. That said, Vilsack doesn't come across as a careless enthusiast and seems to respect that there are serious resource use concerns about the industry. I'm willing to suspend judgement on this one for now, with the caveat that my expectations for sanity on ethanol are low.

Tags: genetically modified organisms, GMO, organic agriculture, packers and stockyards administration, secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack (all tags)

Comments

14 Comments

GM Plants

The seed saving business is bogus.  Monsanto was never going to stop farmers from producing their own seeds.  Abandoning the terminator technology was the worst thing that was ever done in genetic engineering.

At least with terminator, a bad gene would be unlikely to spread and it could be removed from the crop genome.  Without it, there is no way to get rid of a rogue gene.  Starlink is a prime example of an unwanted gene that can't be eliminated.

The primary threat from genetic engineering is the spread of unwanted genes.

by bakho 2008-12-16 03:36PM | 0 recs
Re: Vilsack for Agriculture

Well, better than Leach, a little.

by Jerome Armstrong 2008-12-16 03:53PM | 0 recs
I would like to know

when Obama's transition team approached Vilsack for this position.

Last month Vilsack told the Des Moines Register that he wasn't being considered for any position in Obama's cabinet.

Was that true at the time, or was it a head fake to divert the sustainable agriculture advocates who were lobbying against his appointment to head the USDA?

by desmoinesdem 2008-12-16 04:21PM | 0 recs
I will say this for Vilsack, though

I didn't agree with some of his priorities as governor, and I would much prefer to see him as secretary of education than secretary of agriculture.

But, Tom Vilsack is very smart, understands policy details and works extremely hard. From that perspective, he is everything Obama could want in a cabinet secretary. He is highly competent.

by desmoinesdem 2008-12-16 04:22PM | 0 recs
Re: Vilsack for Agriculture

Great post. I'm not a corn ethanol fan either. The return is too low to make it a complete waste of energy.

On Monsanto, I've written before:

The World According to Monsanto

by Charles Lemos 2008-12-16 04:56PM | 0 recs
Re: Vilsack for Agriculture

As a scientist,I believe in genetic engineering and intellectual property i.e. patenting a gene created.  Howevere, it has never made sense to me how these companies can go in knowing that there is very little they can do about preventing the desirable genes from entering the genomes of surrounding populations and sue over it.  Anyone know how all this started?  A judge that wasn't qualified to decide on a scientific issue?  Lobbists crafting biased laws?

by goodleh 2008-12-16 05:27PM | 0 recs
Re: Vilsack for Agriculture (Monsanto)

Why aren't farmers suing Monsanto for contaminating their non-GM seed stocks? Seems like a nifty idea for a class-action lawsuit.  

by LionelEHutz 2008-12-16 06:43PM | 0 recs
Fox to guard hen house

by RichardFlatts 2008-12-17 03:48AM | 0 recs
GM is a wonderful lifesaver.

just not in AMERICA. The anti-gm dogs have been sicced on the American Companies, because they are about twelve steps away from ending human life on this planet. (and actively held off from the scientists intent on saving lives from malnutrition and death)
GM ain't the devil's own. Monstersanto is.

Yellow rice is a fantastic invention... better growing corn ... eh.

by RisingTide 2008-12-17 05:07AM | 0 recs
Re: GM is a wonderful lifesaver.

Yeah, there's GM and there's GM.  It's always been a bit of a mystery to me why having Bt inside of the corn plant is worse than flying over a field a dropping Bt powder out of a helicopter.  I understand the concerns with gene jumping etc.  But cultivated corn is so distinct genetically from its wild counterpart that I have trouble seeing the gene jumping into a wild strain.  Again, there's so much we don't know, but getting vitamin A (i.e. through yellow rice) to 250 million malnourished Chinese kids seems like a reasonable goal to me.

by the mollusk 2008-12-17 06:32AM | 0 recs
No, it isn't

As Vandana Shiva has explained, the traditional greens displaced by fencerow to fencerow cropping supply more than adequate vitamin A. The solution isn't to put the world on an enriched starch diet, it's to put the world on a balanced diet with more than one source of food. Pulses, fruit, greens, some eggs/meat/fish/milk mixed in, that's the foundational necessity of good nutrition.

Put another way: You can't add enough vitamins to rice to make up for the fact that it's a bad idea to eat only rice.

And wild relatives of crop plants are closely enough related that when there's a problem with a crop plant, traditional plant breeding may call for a cross with a wild relative. The differences between most of these varietals are more like the differences between dog breeds than they are like the differences between dogs and cats. Different as they look, you can cross a Dachshund with a St. Bernard.

by Natasha Chart 2008-12-17 10:17AM | 0 recs
umm.. you ever looked at the nutrition on white

rice? 2000 calories a day will give you enough nutrition. I agree that other foods are better,but with a population crisis, you push where you can.

if you want good food, go back to hunting and gathering.

by RisingTide 2008-12-18 05:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Vilsack for Agriculture

Any knowledge / thoughts on how Vilsack perceives forest management?  The U.S. Forest Service is in the Department of Agriculture and has been one of the worst managed agencies under the Bush administration.

by the mollusk 2008-12-17 06:34AM | 0 recs
Re: Vilsack for Agriculture
He loves Monsanto...
http://www.gene.ch/genet/2002/Oct/msg000 57.html
by sosusa 2008-12-17 09:25AM | 0 recs

Diaries

Advertise Blogads