Vilsack’s Nomination Has Some Wondering: Agribusiness as Usual?


President-elect Obama’s choice for Agriculture Secretary -- former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack -- is facing some heat this morning.

Just yesterday, Obama praised Vilsack for being someone who would bring a “new kind of leadership to Washington.”

But reports this morning have many wondering if Vilsack means agribusiness as usual?

The Politico reports that Vilsack and his wife have collected $48,782 in farm subsidies. During his presidential campaign, Obama called this “waste” and said that he would cut high-dollar farm subsidies given to farmers and corporations as a way to slim down budgets.

The Obama transition team tells Politico Vilsack's subsidies are "relatively meager" and they insist Obama will still push for reform at the agency.

Vilsack also faces questions about lobbying. He works in the law firm Dorsey & Whitney in Des Moines, which is said to have given advice about agribusiness. Obama has promised that lobbyists will not work in his White House, meaning that lobbyists can not work on subjects that are related to their former employer, for two years.

Though Vilsack is not a registered lobbyist, this blurs the lines a bit. And those who want a wholesale change in agriculture policy hope for the best but fear Vilsack 's record in Iowa points to “more of the same” at USDA.

At a time when many are calling for food safety and hunger to be higher priorities, Vilsack signals the focus may be more on biofuels and biotech.

He’s been accused by some critics with being too closely allied with the genetically modified food industry.

On NPR this morning, bestselling author Michael Pollan, who wrote “In Defense of Food” and “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” provided his review of Vilsack's nomination.

"I was very disappointed in that news conference ... not to hear Vilsack use the word 'food' -- or 'eaters.' And the interests of everybody except eaters was discussed: farmers, ranchers, people concerned about the land." Pollan said it seems the choice may be just “agribusiness as usual.”

Jim Harkness, who promotes sustainable agriculture as president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, also worries about Vilsack.

"Vilsack has shown a fairly conventional perspective on agriculture -- particularly related to biotechnology and the siting of factory farms -- that seems to indicate a status quo approach," Harkness said. "But these are unconventional times."

But the Consumer Federation of America greeted Vilsack's nomination with hope, releasing a statement forecasting, "We believe he will work to reform USDA and return it to the role that President Lincoln envisioned, the people’s department."

And despite his worries, Pollan says he remains "cautiously hopeful" that Vilsack will "take a broader view" in the federal government than he did in Iowa.

-- Brian Hartman and Sunlen Miller

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