Change in Cabinet, none in cupboard

Jan 14, 2009 at 6:00 am

Like some 67,000 other Americans, I recently signed a petition asking our next president to deliver on his promise of change, specifically in his choice for Secretary of Agriculture.

The President and the head of the USDA wield incredible leverage over two of the most basic human activities: farming and eating. It is in their power to set American agriculture (and everything ancillary to it) on a path that could end the destructive practices of agri-business giants like Monsanto, Cargill and ConAgra, and support more sustainable means of getting food from the soil into our ever-hungry maws.

The effects of factory farms, the soy/corn monoculture and industrial ethanol production include but are not limited to: critical loss of topsoil, increased reliance on petrochemical fertilizers, toxic runoff, dead zones in the ocean, starvation, disease and obesity.

The evidence is available. If you don’t believe me, let’s get together over a couple Mountain Dews and swap Google searches, or just huff some biodiesel and beat each other senseless with tofu turkey legs. My purpose right now is not to defend these ecological assumptions — sound though they are — but simply to raise my hand and ask if the nomination of Tom Vilsack to head the USDA represents the change America was promised, or simply a continuation of the status quo.

I’ve spent only three or four hours reading about Vilsack, which is to say I’m in no position to drag his name through the mud. So allow me to simply convey some anecdotal information I’ve come across — some positive, some not so positive — for your discrete consideration.

Vilsack is a staunch and outspoken supporter of increased soy- and corn-based ethanol production. He is also described as a factory farm advocate, and longtime proponent of bio-pharmaceutical and genetically modified crops. Accusations of cronyism to agri-business giants like Monsanto are bountiful; Vilsack was awarded the illustrious title of “Governor of the Year 2001” by the world’s largest biotech advocacy firm, Biotechnology Industry Organization. Their website congratulates him on “his support of the industry’s economic growth and agricultural biotechnology research.”

As a state senator, he voted for House File 519, which denied Iowa counties the ability to impose restrictions on Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As governor, Vilsack initiated legislation that stripped the rights of local governments in Iowa to determine where genetically modified organisms are grown, and to set up GMO-free buffer zones. To these ends, Vilsack signed into law House File 642, which was described by Iowa State Rep. Mark Kuhn, D-Floyd, as “an attempt to legislate by and for the biotechnology industry.”

I can gleefully throw myself into a conspiratorial rabbit-hole over this on my own time. For the moment, though, it’s sufficiently freaky yet dreadfully unsurprising to think about corporate agriculture dictating policy and denying self-determination to democratically elected local communities across the country.

Vilsack’s gestures toward fiscal/ethical responsibility and consumer protection include his support for clearly labeled packaging of genetically modified food products and monopoly busting measures in the slaughter and packing industries. He has also taken up Obama’s call for reducing federal subsidies to as little as $250,000 per farm.

To me, the most conspicuous thing about Vilsack’s nomination is not the appearance of another ball-playing politician. Nor is it that his appointment flies in the face of Obama’s pledge to keep special interests out of the White House. The most glaring omission is the absence of any discussion about the demonstrated viability of, and need for, increased sustainable/local agriculture as a means of correcting some of the obvious and deadly flaws in the Super-Ag model.

I want to believe that Obama has the fortitude and strength to wrest the wheel away from the scoundrels next week, and steer this country clear of the jagged rocks that threaten to scuttle it. I want to believe because I looked on joyously as America demanded that we change our course and because I’m weary of charlatans whose snake oil still rankles and roils in my belly.

I don’t envy Obama the weight of expectation and responsibility that he will inherit next week. But as we wrap up the self-congratulatory backslapping and look on anxiously as he finally goes to work, I am holding a list of grievances that is still relatively small. The nomination of Tom Vilsack doesn’t feel like much of a change to me.