A group of NGO chiefs, activists, and Big Organic executives have launched a website and petition to support Tom Vilsack, president-elect Barack Obama’s choice to lead USDA.

Participants in the site, known as supportvilsack.com, include Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation; Iowa sustainable-food activist Denise O’Brien (who recently guest-posted on Gristmill); Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the U.S. Humane Society; Gary Hirshberg, CEO of organic-yogurt giant Stonyfield Farm; Steve Demos, founder of soy-food giant White Wave (now owned by industrial-dairy behemoth Dean Foods); and several others.

Institutionally, the Organic Trade Association — whose members range from tiny producers of hemp products to global agribiz giant Bunge — signed on.

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The effort strikes me as bizarre. Why band together to support someone who’s a shoo-in to be confirmed? Vilsack is no firebrand reformer; his nomination will generate little controversy in the Senate.

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Moreover, I understand the argument — made on Gristmill by O’Brien and by John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs — that Vilsack is a relatively innocuous pick. After all, Obama’s short list of USDA candidates included some real doozies, like agribusiness lobbyist Charles Stenholm.

But Vilsack isn’t likely to lead U.S. food/agriculture policy in new, more sustainable and socially just directions — at least not without a real push from below. As I’ve written before (and many others have pointed out), he has been a fervent booster of the genetically modified seed and biofuel industries — both of which proffer what I think are dead-end “solutions” to environmental problems and offer little to any but the largest-scale and most commodity-oriented farmers.

I agree with the thesis that the sustainable-food movement should “work with” Vilsack, in the sense of pushing him to chart new directions in food/ag policy. But the “support Vilsack” movement (if it can be called that) seems less like a push than an uncritical embrace. Why, again?

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