5 things to know about USDA chief Tom Vilsack, who's emerged at the top of HRC's Veep shortlist.
Tom Vilsack is a trendy guy—but only if by "trendy," you mean "normcore." He has spent the past eight years as secretary of the US Department of Agriculture—the country cousin of presidential cabinet positions. He's a solid centrist Democrat from Iowa, where he served two terms as governor, as well as a stint as mayor of a town called Mt. Pleasant (pop. 8,668). He even calls himself a "workhorse, not a show horse." But he has been generating massive buzz as the possible vice-presidential pick of presumptive Dem nominee Hillary Clinton, recently catapulting to the upper echelons of her Veep shortlist.
If she picks Vilsack and the ticket wins (the polling site 538 gives Clinton a 63 percent chance to prevail in November), the country will have its first vice president to be plucked the from the USDA since Franklin Roosevelt tapped Vilsack's fellow Iowan Henry Wallace in 1940. In other words, we'd have a food/farm policy wonk a heartbeat away from the presidency.
But what kind of food policy wonk is Vilsack?
1. He's no stranger to agribiz. As Iowa governor, Vilsack endeared himself to the state's ag interests. Back in 2001, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)—a trade group representing seed/agrichemical players Monsanto, DuPont, BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta, etc—named him "Governor of the Year" for his "support of the industry's economic growth and agricultural biotechnology research." He also chaired the Governors Ethanol Coalition and the Governors Biotechnology Partnership. Not long after stepping down from the Iowa governor post in 2006, Vilsack joined the Minneapolis-based corporate law firm Dorsey & Whitney, to "provide advice to clients in the fields of energy conservation, renewable energy and agribusiness development."
2. But he's also a champion of alternative food systems. Surely he had a part in President Barack Obama's choice of Kathleen Merrigan, a long-time champion of organic agriculture, to be Vilsack's deputy secretary of ag in 2009, a post she filled until 2013.
Merrigan famously rolled out the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, which made a concerted effort to marshal USDA resources to support local and regional food systems that had been largely neglected by the billions of dollars per year the USDA spends propping up massive-scale chemical-intensive ag as dictated by Congressionally mandated farm policy. KYF, as it's known, did not allocate any new funds—the USDA can only spend what Congress mandates—but as I put it in a 2011 post, the program represents the USDA's "most high-profile acknowledgement since the post-war rise of industrial agriculture that alternative food systems exist, matter, and deserve support."
KYF raised the profile of alternatives to Big Ag enough on the national stage to enrage some of the industry's most powerful allies in Congress—an attack Merrigan fought off, with Vilsack's support.
3. He loves GMOs. Under federal law, the USDA is charged with vetting new genetically modified crops before they enter farm fields. According to Patty Lovera, assistant director of the watchdog group Food and Water Watch, Vilsack's USDA "has been the most GMO-friendly ever." She pointed to a landmark 2011 decision to approve Kentucky bluegrass engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate. As I explained in a detailed post at the time, the decision set a precedent for greenlighting future GMO crops without any assessment of environmental impact—a massive win for the industry. Lovera also pointed to another USDA decision in 2011: the deregulation of glyphosate-resistant alfalfa, even after acknowledging that the crop could cross-pollinate with organic and non-GM alfalfa. (A 2015 study by USDA researchers confirmed that GM alfalfa does indeed promiscuously cross-pollinate.)