Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The Senate should put the brakes on Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture.
Wednesday’s confirmation hearing for Obama’s nominee was a love fest.
But it shouldn’t have been.
More than 60,000 supporters of organic farming have sent e-mails opposing Vilsack’s nomination.
With a world food crisis, food safety problems and a growing demand for local and organic food, the time was right for a real change in national food policy.
Obama could have picked someone who was knowledgeable about organic farming and local and regional food systems.
Someone who knew the difference between growing food and growing commodity crops.
Someone who felt more at ease mending a fence or thinning carrots than sitting in a corporate boardroom
Instead, he chose Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, darling of the biotech industry. In fact, in 2001, the Biotechnology Industry Organization named him governor of the year.
Vilsack happily signed the 2005 seed pre-emption law in Iowa, which prohibits local governments from regulating genetically engineered seeds.
Biogenetic farming is incompatible with organic farming. Genetically modified pollen drifts for miles and contaminates both organic and non-genetically modified conventional crops. The huge companies that dominate genetically modified farming push out small organic farmers and local food producers.
Vilsack also is the favorite of large corporations that are exploiting the demand for organics at the expense of small farmers — corporations like Whole Foods and Stonyfield.
And he has been a champion of biofuels, one of the most wasteful uses of our farmland imaginable.
I don't doubt Tom Vilsack is a nice guy who probably did a lot for Iowa agriculture. I know he did a lot for agribusiness, the chemical companies, biotechnology and large-scale farming. Apparently, his vision of better agriculture is bigger, more intensive agriculture.
His nomination reflects poorly on Obama.
But maybe organic farmers should have seen it coming, since Obama had two Monsanto officials on his advisory team. And he specifically endorsed genetically modified crops, stating they were safe and had ”provided enormous benefits to farmers.”
On the other hand, Obama has praised family farmers and organics. “The Good Food movement, the organic food movement, is a wonderful opportunity for farmers to diversify,” he once said. “When they can diversify and get other crops going, we can in fact produce a healthier food. And more profits can go into the hands of family farmers as opposed to the big food processors and mega businesses. Then I think we are doing well for everybody.”
If Obama's heart is really with small farms, local production and organic food, he should not have chosen an agriculture secretary so closely allied with agribusiness.
Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer and activist from Wonewoc, Wis, and a W. K. Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.