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.

Tom Vilsack's friend Jennifer Donahue says Vilsack is the "best possible" choice for secretary of agriculture.

Legendary activist Denise O'Brien, an organic farmer who was the Democratic nominee for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in 2006, urges sustainable agriculture advocates not to give up hope, because as governor Vilsack was accessible and did some good things on food and environmental issues.

Another Iowan, Food & Society Policy Fellow Angie Tagtow, wants Vilsack and incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle to work together:

A dichotomy exists between agriculture policies and Dietary Guidelines for Americans - yet, ironically, both are overseen by the USDA. Current food and farm policies stand in the way of making healthy food the easiest choice.

Food and agriculture policies must support disease prevention efforts and can save millions in health care costs. The USDA and USDHHS must use sound science, instead of pressures from special interests like biotechnology companies and the food industry, to reform policies and programs that support a healthy and sustainable food and agriculture system.

Specifically, Tagtow advocates cooperation between Vilsack and Daschle toward the following goals:

1. Creating an intradepartmental Food Policy Council, led by a Food Czar, "to assure farm, food and nutrition policies and programs support public health goals." 

2. Enacting policies to build fertile soil. "Farmers should receive support or credits for decreasing use of synthetic farm chemicals, protecting natural resources, building soil, reducing fossil fuel use and capturing carbon."

3. Creating incentives to grow more fruits and vegetables in the U.S.: "Our agriculture system does not grow enough of the right foods that promote our health. We are forced to rely on other countries to put fruits and vegetables on our plates."

4. Making fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains more available to people on federal food and nutrition assistance program: "Improving the nutritional quality of the WIC food package and the foods served in schools will nourish healthy children, prepare them to learn, reduce childhood diseases, reduce food insecurity and produce healthy, productive adults."

5. Leveraging food production as economic development. "Growing more food closer to where we eat it increases our access to fresh seasonal food, cultivates a closer relationship with farmers, and builds community resiliency, economic stability, food security and health."

Tagtow's suggestions are all excellent, and I hope Vilsack and Daschle will act on them.

Rob Hubler, former Congressional candidate in Iowa's fifth district, is asking everyone on his e-mail list to support petitions calling for a more sustainable agriculture policy:


[...] Will you join me in continuing to work for the same values we campaigned on? There are two quick, but important, actions I want you to take. Both will make a difference for the future of rural communities, family farming and our entire food system.

First, I was proud to add my name to a remarkable effort to pressure President-elect Obama to appoint a "Sustainable Secretary of Agriculture" originated in our own district. Food Democracy Now (, launched last week by Iowan Dave Murphy, rocketed to national attention when Nicolas Kristof endorsed the effort in his New York Times column.

Nearly 50,000 people have already signed. Will you help push the petition to 100,000?

Second, the Center for Rural Affairs launched a Grassroots Letter to the next Secretary of Agriculture. No matter who Obama selects, the next head of the USDA needs to hear from you. You can sign the Center for Rural Affairs Grassroots Letter and leave your own comment about the change you would like to see to food, farm and rural policy. The Center for Rural Affairs will send your signature and comment onto the next Agriculture Secretary.

Join me in signing their letter here:

Peace & Justice,

Rob L. Hubler

I agree that it's helpful to add more names to those petitions. Food Democracy Now has more than 58,000 signers already. The Center for Rural Affairs' proposals are wide-ranging and sensible.

The Organic Consumers Association, which came out swinging against Vilsack last month, hasn't given up on blocking this appointment. On Wednesday they launched a "Stop Vilsack" petition.

This strategy strikes me as ineffective and unwise. There is no chance of Obama backing off from this nomination. He was aware of Vilsack's position on agriculture when he made the decision. There is no chance of the Senate not confirming Vilsack. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chairs the relevant committee and has already said he will make sure the confirmation hearings go smoothly.

The Organic Consumers Association would do better to organize pressure on Vilsack to take specific actions, either reversing bad Bush administration policies or moving in a more sustainable direction, as the Center for Rural Affairs and Tagtow are proposing.

Daily Kos user CornSyrupAwareness had a different take on Vilsack's nomination:

I'm glad to see Iowa get their due with this pick of Tom Vilsack. They were instrumental in getting our man elected, and we should all tip our caps to Iowa. Iowa is now paid in full for their efforts and I'm glad. This way they don't get their due by 'vetoing' a Surgeon General's warning on High Fructose Corn Syrup.

CornSyrupAwareness also quoted some comments Obama made months ago about corn syrup, and posted this great clip of Bill Maher asking Joe Biden, "Which is more likely to contribute to the death of your average American: a terrorist strike, or high-fructose corn syrup, and air that has too much coal in it?"

Once Vilsack is confirmed as secretary of agriculture, a lot of other positions within the USDA will need to be filled. At La Vida Locavore, Obama Foodorama drew attention to last week's little-noticed resignation of Elizabeth Johnson, the Under Secretary for Food Safety of USDA and made the case for Bill Marler to replace her:

[T]here are opportunities for swift and dramatic change, particularly in food safety. If the USDA fulfilled even half of its already existing mandate, we'd have a far cleaner and safer food chain. Elizabeth Johnson's now-vacant post as Under Secretary for Food Safety needs to be filled by an inspired, activist leader, someone with both a long institutional memory, and a firm grasp on how to rapidly change what's so terribly wrong with our system. There's one individual in the food safety world who is the most uniquely qualified candidate to take on such a huge challenge: Attorney Bill Marler, the foremost food poisoning authority in the country (pictured).

A founding partner of Seattle's Marler Clark law firm, Marler is an extremely activist consumer advocate and champion of change in food safety policy and practice, both in the US and abroad. His focus on food safety began in 1993, when he won a landmark settlement against Jack in The Box for E. coli contamination. Since then, Marler's firm has become a powerhouse of food borne illness litigation, garnering close to half a billion dollars in settlements for injured clients.

Marler himself is now the leading US expert in institutional and agricultural structures for food safety, and he regularly works with farmers and major corporations to change/create safety practices (most recently, he persuaded global conglomerate Conagra to dramatically alter their policies). He's repeatedly testified before Congress on food safety, and has been a vociferous and much-published critic of government policies and practices (including the ongoing labeling fights over "organic"). His Marler Blog is the best internet source for food safety information, and as the years have gone by, Marler has devoted more and more of his professional life to non-profit consultations on food safety and security around the world. Under the umbrella of Marler Clark's non-profit organization, Outbreak, Marler consulates with foreign food agencies, producers, and governments on how to better protect the public from poisoned food, and how to create safe food systems. This is crucial for any Under Secretary for Food Safety, because America imports a huge part of our food supply each year. Marler has not only been an activist on getting foreign producers to focus on safety, but he's also intimately acquainted with exactly what goes on in international markets.

The undersecretary appointments don't get much attention but are quite important. Thanks to Obama Foodorama for shining a light on food safety. Note: Marler is an occasional diarist at Daily Kos. His most recent post is about the top ten food safety stories of 2008.

Share any relevant thoughts on Vilsack's nomination or federal policies on food and agriculture.

Tags: agriculture policy, Angie Tagtow, Barack Obama, cabinet, Center for Rural Affairs, Denise O'Brien, Food Democracy Now, food policy, Food Safety, Health, high-fructose corn syrup, joe biden, Organic Consumers Association, Rob Hubler, secretary of agriculture, sustainable agriculture, Tom Daschle, Tom Vilsack, US Department of Agriculture, USDA (all tags)



Corn Based Ethanol mafia

Well the appointment is certainly not a disastrous one. He seems like a capable guy. But the reason we are holding Obama to such scrutiny is that times are different now. After 8 years of Bush and Democratic impotent opposition in the Congress, we need higher standards. Mere competence won't do.

So what is the scoop on Vilsack and Ethanol. I can't respect a guy who supports the big Corn based Ethanol scam that has robbed us of precious taxpayer dollars and increased food prices at the same time. So is Vilsack a shill for those guys, or is the link overblown?

I am not happy with the big farming corp links alleged by some of his critics. Is there a basis to it or just necessary politics for a politician to survive in those states?

Having said that, I think Vilsack has what it takes to be a good choice as long as Obama makes it clear that any favoritism to big corps wont be tolerated. Also I would like to see  a bipartisan coalition to go after the corn based Ethanol mafia.

by Pravin 2008-12-21 01:19AM | 0 recs
no Iowa politician

can be against ethanol. Vilsack is no worse than anyone else on this score and better than many.

I objected to other things in his record more, particularly his aggressive advocacy for genetically-modified organisms in food crops. He also wanted to grow GMO corn for pharmaceutical purposes in Iowa, which strikes me as absolutely insane. One that stuff contaminates corn used in the food supply, we could lose all our export markets.

by desmoinesdem 2008-12-21 03:49AM | 0 recs
Re: More reaction to Vilsack's nomination
I think Vilsack is a good choice, he doesn't support subsidies for big ag, his support of ethanol also includes transitioning over to cellulosic ethanol as the technology improves (he wants a 75% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050) and he supports family farms and organic farming.
Anyone who has dealt with farm issues is going to have to deal with biotechnology including GMOs, but people are so uneducated about this issue and others (like assuming organic foods are somehow better for you), it's hard to get through the noise.
For example, I read another article on the internet where a commenter was calling the USDA to task for allowing the US to buy fruits and vegetables from other countries. Well the problem is, since the US is in the northern hemisphere, it isn't possible to raise fruits and vegetables year round in the US, except in places like California and Florida, who can't possibly grow enough for the whole country.
I start reading and commenting in threads and get so frustrated by the ignorance, and the open hostility to my facts, that I end up just not commenting at all.
by skohayes 2008-12-21 02:46AM | 0 recs
Re: More reaction to Vilsack's nomination

This is good to hear. I feel better about this choice.

by Pravin 2008-12-21 03:09AM | 0 recs
Great info, thanks...

I just LOATHE Archer-Daniels Midlands, they seem like the Blackwater of industrial farming megloraiders!

It totally colors my opinion of Ethanol.

All the subsidies, and, as I remember, they syphon off a huge chunk of them...It's a boondoggle, the epitome of corporate welfare.

I would hope that Vilsack, now that is he is not beholding to those folks for corporate largese neccesary to get elected stands up to those bullies.

by WashStateBlue 2008-12-21 09:07AM | 0 recs
we should still grow more fruits and veggies here

Unfortunately, a deal was struck many years ago to secure votes from Californians for our terrible farm subsidies policies. Californians would vote for huge subsidies for corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton, and in return, farmers receiving those subsidies cannot grow any significant amount of fruits and vegetables.

If I'm an Iowa farmer growing corn and soybeans, and I put more than two acres of my operation into vegetables, I lose all my subsidies.

Policies like this are why the average Iowa farm now grows two crops, down from around 30 crops 100 years ago. It's also why 90 percent of the food Iowans eat comes from outside Iowa, and fruits and vegetables are often trucked more than 1,000 to get to our grocery stores. This is despite the fact that Iowans like buying local food--we have more farmers' markets per capita than any other state.

You are correct that because of the short growing season and hard winter frosts, we wouldn't be able to eat all locally-produced fruits and veggies year-round. But what if more Iowa farms grew vegetables that were then frozen? I buy lots of frozen vegetables in the winter and would love to be able to choose locally-grown frozen vegetables if I had that option.

Anyway, thanks for your comment. Vilsack is smart and highly capable and is far from the worst choice on Obama's short list. I hoped for more from him as governor, but I could say that about most Iowa Democrats.

by desmoinesdem 2008-12-21 03:47AM | 0 recs
we should still grow more fruits and veggies here
I researched the subsidy program some years ago and although I used to support them, the way the farm bill has been worked to support some farmers and certain crops and not others is ridiculous.
For anyone interested in what DMD mentions above about not being able to grow fruits and vegetables on corn, wheat or soybean based acres, here is an editorial talking about it: n/01hedin.html?_r=2&oref=slogin
I support farmers being able to grow what they want, that's for sure.
Hopefully Vilsack can cut through the crap on the Farm Bill and put sensible legislation in it's place (that's like trying to make the DoD accountable for the hundreds of billions they waste every year, but I'm always hopeful).
by skohayes 2008-12-21 11:32AM | 0 recs
Off topic

But why are we so hell bent on appointing a Czar (aka Tsar, aka Caesar, aka Dictator) to almost everything in crisis?   It annoys me.

by NvDem 2008-12-21 06:07AM | 0 recs
forest service

This puts Vilsack in charge of the national forests.  I'd have personally like seeing someone with a bit more of track record here but maybe this give more power to the forest service chief.  With 193 million acres it ought to get a little more respect.  It's going to take a lot of leadership to deal with Bush administration malevolence and neglect with regard to roadless areas, "happy forests", fire suppression, endangered species act, wildlife habitat, mixed use, etc.  

by Lystrosaurus 2008-12-21 06:41AM | 0 recs
Iowa is one of only 2 or 3 states

that have no national forests.

Obviously it will be critically important to get someone good appointed to head the US Forest Service.

While Vilsack has no track record in this area, I expect (based on his record of appointing good people to environmental posts in Iowa) that he would be sympathetic to environmental concerns regarding roadless areas, etc. But we will have to wait and see, obviously.

by desmoinesdem 2008-12-21 09:38AM | 0 recs
Re: More reaction to Vilsack's nomination and

Campaign Diaries has an extensive rundown of all the elected officials picked for Obama's Cabinets and of all those who did not make the cut despite being rumored - and explains what all of this means for the electoral landscape in 2010 and beyond.

by LeftistAddiction 2008-12-21 06:54AM | 0 recs


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