U.S. Agriculture Nominee Attracts Controversy

Vilsack and SalazarPresident-elect Barack Obama nominated the former governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, to serve as his secretary of agriculture earlier this week.

If approved, Vilsack will oversee the world's most productive farmlands, and therefore, some of the world's most daunting environmental challenges. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will influence decisions of ethanol production and global food shortages, growing meat demand and livestock-related greenhouse gases, genetically modified organisms and organic agriculture, rural poverty and agribusiness consolidation.

Vilsack critics say he supported larger farms more than local, organic food production during his two decades in government. Yet observers from Iowa also describe the Democrat as a centrist who balanced the demands of farmers, environmentalists, and industry groups.

"I honestly believe he will listen to a broad sense of voices, having been through a lot here in Iowa," said Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

The nomination angered some environmental groups, mostly from the organic community, because of Vilsack's support for large agribusiness and biotechnology.

"Vilsack's nomination sends the message that dangerous, untested, unlabeled genetically engineered crops will be the norm in the Obama Administration," said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, in a press release.

Vilsack signed legislation in 2005 that preempted local cities and counties from restricting the sale of genetically modified seeds. Yet, according to the Center for Rural Affairs, he reportedly said biotechnology corporations should prove their products are safe before the seeds become available on the market - a more stringent requirement than the law currently states.

The organic association also opposes Vilsack's nomination for his record on "aiding and abetting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations." When Vilsack was governor from 1998-2006, the number of hogs per farm in Iowa - the No.1 live animal exporter in the nation - rose from about 800 to more than 1,800 [PDF]. Meanwhile, the number of hog farms fell almost 50 percent.

As a state senator, Vilsack voted for a 1995 law that almost excluded livestock operations from public nuisance lawsuits because of significant demands on the plaintiffs. The Iowa Supreme Court later overturned the law as "flagrantly unconstitutional."

"We continue not to really come forward and recognize the impacts of more and more concentration of animals in our state," said Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, a lobbying group that represents more than 70 state organizations. "That is a big disappointment."

But the Humane Society of the United States supports his nomination, citing his responsive record on various animal rights measures. Michael Markarian, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said he was not "extremely familiar" with Vilsack's record on factory farming, but Vilsack was the Humane Society's top choice, nonetheless.

"When you consider the other possible choices - like Rep. John Salazar and former Rep. Charlie Stenholm, who are closely aligned with the agribusiness industry - it becomes clear just how meaningful it is that someone like Vilsack was selected instead," Makarian said in an e-mail. "We expect him to be a reasonable and moderate voice on factory farming issues, and not someone who will automatically side with the knee-jerk positions of agribusiness."

As governor, Vilsack supported water pollution controls, renewable energy, and livestock market reforms.

After farm runoff contributed to growing problems of water pollution throughout the state, Vilsack expanded the state's annual water monitoring budget from $33,000 to $3 million. In his second term, he hosted a multi-stakeholder water summit that resulted in a new state water resources council.

"He really took on issues of impaired water and water quality, and it became...a pretty high profile focus of his administration," Heathcote said.

The agriculture secretary will have to collaborate with rural landowners in efforts to expand renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, and geothermal nationwide. As governor, Vilsack strongly advocated alternative energy and helped usher some of the world's largest wind energy companies to his state - now the country's third largest wind energy producer.  

Yet it was large clean energy corporations, more than local landowners, that generally profited from the investments, according to Iowa Renewable Energy Association board member Ed Woolsey.

"His forte is not working with landowners or farmers," said Woolsey, president of Green Prairie Wind Development and a Union of Concerned Scientists consultant. "His forte is working with big business and regulatory agencies to smooth the way for them to install large developments."

The energy policy that has captured most environmentalists attention has been Vilsack's strong support for ethanol. The next agriculture secretary will inherit the Bush administration's mandates for high ethanol production - 10.5 billion gallons of corn ethanol is required next year and 15 billion gallons by 2015.

Vilsack acknowledged ethanol's limitations, however, in a Rolling Stone interview after he announced his presidency in 2006. "Frankly, corn-based ethanol is not necessarily the wave of the future," he said. "Ethanol may be, but corn is not. There's not enough corn. There needs to be focus on switchgrass, on municipal waste, on timber, on other ways to produce ethanol that is more efficient."

Sustainable agriculture advocates [PDF] had hoped someone from within their community would be picked for the job. Despite the organic community's apparent disappointment, Vilsack garnered the support of several national environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, and National Wildlife Federation.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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