Vilsack confirmation hearing linkfest

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack appears to be on track for unanimous confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of Agriculture in Barack Obama's cabinet. At his confirmation hearing yesterday, Republicans didn't ask hostile questions, and Vilsack didn't have to explain away any embarrassing behavior like Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner's failure to fully meet his tax obligations over a period of years.

Despite the lack of drama, Vilsack made a number of noteworthy comments during the hearing. Join me after the jump for some highlights and analysis.

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More reaction to Vilsack's nomination and good ideas on food policy

I don't recall nearly as intense a reaction to Bill Clinton's or George Bush's nominees for secretary of agriculture. Either food and farm issues are more salient now than they used to be, or I am noticing it more because Barack Obama is tapping an Iowan to head the USDA.

A few days ago I posted a Vilsack reaction linkfest at the Iowa progressive community blog Bleeding Heartland, but the hits just keep on coming.

Follow me after the jump if you care to read more.

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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.

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