On Wednesday, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack began his confirmation hearing to become the 30th U.S. secretary of agriculture with the promise to be a forward-looking leader who would make the USDA a 21st century agency. While his nomination has been unpopular among some members of the sustainable-agriculture community, there is hope that under his guidance the USDA can grow into a very different agency than it has been during the past four decades, when it’s been run by secretaries such as Earl Butz.

As the next head of the USDA, Vilsack will be charged with revamping a sprawling agency that has an annual budget of $89 billion and more than 92,000 employees, a task that he is uniquely qualified to do.

In Iowa, which my family has called home for six generations, Vilsack is known to be a smart, capable administrator who has been willing to listen to the concerns of family farmers and rural advocates. While attending a Practical Farmers of Iowa conference this past weekend, where many of the state’s most progressive and sustainable farmers gathered, there was almost universal agreement that Vilsack is capable of much more at the national level than he was as the governor of a former red state, where almost any progressive policy he would have put forward would have been blocked by a Republican-controlled Iowa House and Senate.

CAFOs and GMOs

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That said, many are still upset over Vilsack’s 1995 vote as a state senator to repeal local control (H.F. 519), which stripped local elected officials from having a say in where confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are located. His promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has concerned members of the sustainable-ag community even more. They fear that his closeness with agribusiness companies will only prolong U.S. farm policies benefiting corporate agribusiness at the expense of family farmers.

Here in Iowa, while we have been disappointed with many of our political leaders, we are pragmatic and understand when it is important to work with them and when it’s time to hold them accountable.

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As governor, Vilsack was able to do a number of good things, including create the Iowa Food Policy Council [PDF] and appoint several progressive ag and environmental candidates to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which was responsible for attempting to hold industrial ag responsible for its damage to our state’s air [PDF] and water quality, which is among the worst in the nation.

Unfortunately, Iowa has pretty much been plowed under by industrial hog confinements since we lost the right of local control in 1995, and thousands of independent family hog farmers have gone out of business as a result of this poorly thought-out policy. While Vilsack made the mistake as a state senator of voting against local control, he was able to reevaluate that position once it proved to be harmful to family farmers and the environment. He attempted some decent reforms, but he was blocked by Republicans. Still, he almost certainly could have done more.

Unique opportunities

Knowing this, we believe that our community has a unique opportunity to have positive input in future food and farm policy as a result of having a popularly elected Democratic president, who ran on a progressive mandate of change, and a Democratic House and Senate that will be more will sympathetic to our pressing concerns.

With the looming energy crisis, water shortages, the growing impact of climate change, the continued erosion of food safety, and rising food security concerns, the stakes are too high for agribusiness to continue as usual at the USDA.

Due to this convergence of very real problems, we are at the beginning of a new era for food and farm policy. The question that remains, however, is how do we go forward?

Going forward

As we have learned from the Bush administration, it’s not only important who you surround yourself with, but also whose advice you take. What will be more telling than President-elect Barack Obama’s selection of Vilsack as the next secretary of ag is whom he chooses to fill the top slots at the USDA, such as deputy, under secretaries, and deputy under secretaries.

This is why the minute Vilsack was chosen, Food Democracy Now! launched a campaign to promote a list of 12 candidates, who we’re calling the Sustainable Dozen, to fill those positions.

It is now time for the sustainable-ag and environmental communities to unite in order to confront the problems that face us as a nation and work together to create a sustainable 21st century food and farm system.

To do this, members and organizations of this community must put aside differences and present a united front going forward. Up until this time, a lot of criticism has been leveled at Vilsack for his closeness to the biotech industry — and rightfully so. As so often happens, an overzealous sales pitch by vested interests sold then-Gov. Vilsack on the idea that biotechnology was an unlimited scientific breakthrough that offered economic benefits for his state and its farmers. At the same time, the industry did its best to hide the very real threats that this technology poses to human and animal health and the environment. Now the facts about GMOs are starting to come out.

Our movement is big enough to contain the different views of organizations such as the Organic Trade Association, which promotes the interests of organic companies, and the Organic Consumers Association, a vigilant watchdog group that looks out for organic integrity and consumer safety, as well as companies such as Whole Foods, the largest organic and natural-food retailer in the world, and small, local co-ops.

In an effort to bridge the gap between the various members of our community, I have reached out to a variety of groups and individuals and have written a post on the Support Vilsack website explaining why I support Tom’s confirmation and why it may actually be good for us. While some in the sustainable-ag community may not like this, it was done after consulting leaders of the family-farm community here in Iowa such as Niman Ranch hog farmer Paul Willis, organic farmer Denise O’Brien, and Iowa Farmers Union President Chris Petersen, who have worked on these issues for decades. The mantra here in Iowa goes, Vilsack is a leader
who listens and one we can work with.

And while I understand OCA’s desire to hold Vilsack accountable for some of his past mistakes, it is now time to make our case to political leaders and educate consumers regarding the concerns over GMOs and other issues.

Finding common ground

If the food and farm movement is to maximize the opportunities of having a popularly elected president who ran on a mandate of change, and a Democratic Congress, we must put aside our very real differences and find common ground in order to confront the real enemies that threaten family farmers, our environment, human health, and consumer safety.

If we really want to create a sustainable food system for the 21st century, we will have to work in unison, and the next step is getting members of the sustainable-ag community placed in positions where they can act as guardians over our food supply and end the era in which agribusiness lobbyists and executives used the USDA, FDA, and EPA as revolving doors to promote their corporate agenda.

After that we must put forward policy ideas that will protect family farmers, the environment, animal welfare, and consumer safety, while renewing rural America and guaranteeing energy independence.

A first step would be enacting legislation that implements payment limitations, fully funds the Conservation Security Program, regulates CAFOs, encourages transition to organic, natural, humane, and more sustainable practices, labels human food products that contain GMOs, and moves beyond corn-based ethanol.

All eyes are now on the USDA to see if it will become an institution that stands up for the benefit of family farmers across this nation. It is important for our nation’s future to see if, under Vilsack, the department broadens its mandate to include a moral vision that vigorously protects consumer health, animal welfare, and the environment, or if it remains a hegemon of agribusiness interests.

In many ways, Obama’s legacy, as well as Vilsack’s, will be determined by what his administration chooses to do regarding U.S. food and farm policy. Nothing is more important to our existence than food and the soil in which it grows; now that awareness of how our industrial food system is having such a large impact on human health, the environment, the climate, and our rural economies has grown beyond a small circle of experts, it is vital that our leaders create significant change in these critical areas.

The consequences of half-measures, inaction, and divisiveness are too great. It will take visionary leadership and cooperation to correct the problems created by current U.S ag policy and chart a positive course for our collective future. We are in this together.