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More on Vilsack as Obama's USDA Chief

When President-elect Barack Obama nominated former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture in mid-December, many ag-related groups hopped on the bandwagon with endorsements. But those who had hoped for a more progressive candidate to shake up the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recent agenda of favoring agribusiness were less than enthused.

As John Nichols of The Nation pointed out in his blog, The Beat, the agriculture department is one of our nation's largest non-defense agencies, with a $97 billion annual budget and more than 100,000 employees. Its jurisdiction is far-reaching, with, as National Public Radio's Howard Berkes describes them, "broad and sometimes competing mandates" that include management of national forests, food safety, school lunch programs, food stamps, agricultural subsidies, biofuels, surplus commodities, rural economic development, biotechnology, agricultural trade, meat inspection, federal nutrition programs, feedlots and megafarms raising cattle and hogs.

So many issues, so many opinions - obviously, not everyone will be happy or support every decision made by the ag department's top executive. In Vilsack's case, the nominee's stance - and political record - on a few hot-button issues are being hotly discussed, most notably his support of biofuels, biotechnology and agribusiness.

It certainly can't come as a surprise to anyone that Obama, who is in favor of ethanol production to relieve dependence on foreign oil, would view Vilsack's record of support and experience with biofuels in a positive light. As governor of Iowa, Vilsack chaired the Governors' Ethanol Coalition.

Besides the "food vs. fuel" argument by those who oppose biofuels, detractors object to the amount of carbon dioxide that is a byproduct of using fossil fuels to produce ethanol, contributing to global warming. Additionally, ethanol production requires massive amounts of water, one of our shrinking natural resources.

Vilsack, who strongly advocates combating global warming, responded to the ecological price of biofuels in an interview with Grist, an environmental news and commentary Web site, saying that "corn was a great way to start the conversation on renewable fuel."

"I think there are more efficient ways over time to produce ethanol from biomass with less stress on the environment, less use of water, less use of fertilizer," he said.

Objections to Vilsack's strong embrace of biotechnology and agribusiness are among the loudest from those opposed to his nomination.

"Vilsack has a glowing reputation as being a shill for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto," declared the Organic Consumers Association, pointing out that as Iowa's governor he was criticized for his frequent travel on Monsanto's jet.

Vilsack served as chairman of the Governors Biotechnology Partnership, and during his tenure, Iowa invested millions in biotech startups. Andrew Kimbrell pointed out in a December Huffington Post article that $9 million in taxes went to cow cloners Trans Ova Genetics, and $6 million was invested in the failed ProdiGene Inc., responsible for genetically engineering pharmaceutical corn.

In an October interview with Mark Nichols at Politicalbase.com, Vilsack confirmed his stance on genetic engineering, saying, "There's unlimited potential here if we recognize that the 21st-century American economy will be bio economy."

"We're going to move from a commodity economy, where you basically grow the same kind of crops - where a kernel of corn is a kernel of corn - to an ingredient economy, where there will be a kernel of corn that will be designed for fuel, where there will be a kernel of corn designed for livestock, there will be kernels of corn that will be used to make paper or fabric for clothes," Vilsack said.

The Nation's Nichols said that as governor, Vilsack's stands on many issues regularly disappointed family farm activists and organic food advocates, though he is in favor of labeling GMO foods and he was a strong supporter of local control of the location of factory farms in Iowa.

Center for Rural Affairs Director Chuck Hassebrook is hopeful, saying that as Iowa's governor, Vilsack "was consistently making statements that supported federal policy changes to do less to subsidize big farms and do more to support conservation."

In the Grist interview, Vilsack said, "My hope is that we transform from the traditional farm policy to a food-and-farm policy that encourages greater diversity in agriculture."

He added that Americans needed to "be looking at changing the way we subsidize agriculture generally, from a commodity-based process to a conservation-based process, which would benefit organic farms."

Only time will tell whether Vilsack represents what Obama calls the "change we need" within the USDA.

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Jan Wiese-Fales is a Master Gardener who lives and pulls weeds at Mole Hill in rural Howard County. Reach her at fertilemind AT sbcglobal DOT net