Who's Who on Obama's Green Team: Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture

The third profile of people on Obama's Green Team is of Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture. While some in the green community may have preferred a more radical choice to head the USDA--TreeHugger presented what Food Democracy Now considered to be twelve more sustainable choices for the position--some green groups (such as the EDF) as well as farm groups were pleased with the choice. This is Tom Vilsack's background, his stance on some of the issues, and why he's likely to keep getting under the skin of the environmental community:Orphaned in Pittsburgh
Tom Vilsack was born in Pittsburgh on December 12, 1950 and abandoned shortly thereafter. Placed in an orphanage, he was adopted one year later. After spending his childhood in Pittsburgh, he attended Hamilton College in New York, where he earned his bachelor's degree. He went on the Albany Law School, earning his JD in 1975. After this he moved to Mt Pleasant, Iowa where he joined his father-in-law's law firm.

In 1987, he was elected mayor of Mt Pleasant; and in 1992 was elected to the Iowa state senate. In 1998 he won the governorship of Iowa by a slim margin, a position he held until January 2007. In the most recent election, Vilsack briefly ran for president; after dropping out he supported Hillary Clinton, but quickly and vocally supported Barack Obama after the primaries.

Corn Ethanol Not Enough For Energy Security
Though as an Iowa politician it would be hard to last long not having the support of corn growers and the farm industry in general, Vilsack's views on corn ethanol, biofuels and energy security are (thankfully) a bit more nuanced than you might imagine.

In a 2007 speech he stated,

Iowa is one of the nation's leading producers of corn-based ethanol, and many people in my state have an economic stake in the expanded use of corn-based ethanol. But the reality is that corn-based ethanol will never be enough to reach our goals. Some have suggested that we import more sugar-based ethanol from Brazil and we should indeed consider all sources of available ethanol but if we are going to create energy security we can't simply replace one imported source of energy with another. That alone is not security the only way we can produce enough domestically is if we greatly improve the technology used to produce cellulosic ethanol.

GMO Support Taints Vilsack's Record: Organic Consumers Assoc.
So why then did the Organic Consumers Association say that Tom Vilsack was not "change we can believe in"?

The big problem from their viewpoint has been his support of GMO crops:

Vilsack's nomination sends the message that dangerous, untested, unlabeled genetically engineered crops will be the norm in the Obama Administration. 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.

Furthermore, though "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."

Additional strikes against Vilsack come from being named governor of the year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and his support of Trans Ova and their work cloning dairy cows. In some materials, OCA goes so far as to call Tom Vilsack a shill for Monsanto, and points out that while governor he got into controversy by availing himself of a Monsanto corporate jet.

Vilsack Likely to Continue Displease Some
Of all President Obama's agency heads in the green sphere, Vilsack seems to be the one which will continue to cause the most controversy among environmentalists. The USDA is just about set to approve GMO corn for use in ethanol, something which will undoubtedly cause more displeasure with the department in parts of the green community. We will have to keep a close eye on what comes out of the USDA during his term.

Plenty sums it up well:

I'm really distressed that, after everything Barack and Michelle Obama have said about supporting sustainably produced food, they've nominated someone who so embodies the status quo and what's wrong with it. To be sure, Obama could've nominated someone worse, but he also could've done a lot better.  Some people who call Vilsack a centrist point out that it's a pipe dream to hope that Obama—or anyone—would appoint a Secretary of Agriculture as far left as I'd like.  They're right, of course. Let's hope that Vilsack's experiences in Iowa—juggling both agribiz and smaller, more progressive powers—will give him a balanced perspective in Washington.

via: New York Times, Organic Consumers Assocation, Plenty, USDA, Wikipedia
photo: USDA
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Tags: Agriculture | Barack Obama | Biofuels | Ethanol | Genetic Engineering | GMO | Renewable Energy | United States