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Big Ag or Big Change?

By Stett Holbrook

MOST OF President Obama's cabinet picks have been spot on and generally fall in line with his campaign pledge to be an agent of change. The one dud is his pick of Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for secretary of agriculture.Before he tapped Vilsack for ag, there was a lot of hope in sustainable and local agriculture circles that Obama would select someone who would take this country's agriculture policy in a very different direction, one that puts people and quality food above commodities and costly subsidies for agribusiness. The selection of Vilsack does not appear to represent change we can believe in. And make no mistake, we need a change. We have become a nation of obese junk-food eaters who are increasingly disconnected from the food we eat, food that's largely grown at the expense of the environment and the people who produce it.

"As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision," Obama said during the announcement of Vilsack's selection, "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." That last bit about energy is cause for concern. Obama and Vilsack are both big supporters of biofuels—growing crops to produce fuel; i.e. ,corn for ethanol. Of course, reducing our use of oil is a worthy goal, but the trouble with growing acres of corn for fuel is not only does it take a lot of land out of food production, but the use of petroleum-based fertilizers to grow all that corn undermines efforts to find petroleum alternatives.

Andrew Kimbrell is the executive director and founder of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit organization that challenges harmful food-production technologies and promotes sustainable alternatives. Writing in the Huffington Post, Kimbrell says that for those who have health and environmental concerns about genetically engineered (GE) crops, cloning and industrial agriculture, it would be difficult to pick someone with a worse track record than Vilsack. He says that under Vilsack the state of Iowa invested millions of dollars of taxpayer money in dubious biotechnology startups like ProdiGene, a pharmaceutical corn developer.

"Iowa's investment in ProdiGene was particularly unfortunate," says Kimbrell. "The company not only proved a financial failure, but in 2002, an Iowa cornfield that became contaminated with the company's genetically engineered pharma corn had to be destroyed. One hopes Mr. Vilsack has learned from this experience. He also supported (some say instigated) a bill in 2005 that pre-empted cities and counties from regulating GE crops more strictly than the state or federal government." 

The American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit group that works to protect farmland and the environment, is keeping pressure on Vilsack and Obama to deliver the change we need. Among other things, they're calling for:

•  The recognition that agriculture can play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gases.
•  Mitigation against the loss of strategic agricultural resources and the development of green infrastructure to support local agricultural economies.
•  The protection and promotion of regional food system programs.
•  The creating of a "farmer corps" to stimulate green jobs in the agricultural economy and encourage a new generation to enter agriculture.
•  The support of local food in school cafeterias. No more Tater Tots!

I'm willing to give Vilsack the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he will surprise us and truly take this country's agriculture in a new direction. I'll be watching carefully.

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