Vilsack: Boon or Bain to Obama Ag Administration?

Posted by Trish Riley, November 18, 2009

nimans_august26_cows_postFrom our correspondent Christine Heinrichs:

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke at the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists on October 9. David Brancaccio, host of the PBS investigative news program NOW, introduced Vilsack by asking whether there is anything new at the Department of Agriculture. “When was the last time a Secretary of Agriculture came to this event?” True enough, this was the first time in living memory that the head of the USDA has appeared at the SEJ meeting.

Evidence of change under his leadership has already surfaced. Vilsack told about his support for community and local agriculture programs and carbon offset programs, then took questions from the group (listen here).

The National Animal Identification System, a scheme to identify every premise that was home to even a single livestock animal (of 33 species listed, including llamas and elk), tag every one of them and then require all movements off said premises to be reported to the database within 48 hours, has largely been abandoned. After spending $142 million on the system since it was launched in 2004, the new administration scheduled Listening Sessions in 2009 that lived up to their name. With more than 90 percent of the thousands of comments opposing NAIS, USDA backed off. Congress followed suit, cutting funding for the project to about a third of its previous annual allocation of $14.7 million, to $5.3 million in the recently passed agriculture appropriations bill. Ag groups lobbied to eliminate funding altogether, [WHAT were arguments for and against this NAIS program? Point out that it was established under Bush admin – what do supporters and opposition say was actual intent and what were the results?]

NAIS still exists as a voluntary system, and those who wish to participate may do so. USDA hasn’t issued a statement on what direction the program will take, and it’s unlikely to disappear, with its powerful industrial supporters. Wisconsin has made its program mandatory, in response to federal funding to develop a model program. The issue here is that NAIS, which only last year was still regarded as necessary and a fait accompli, has been tabled in response to grass roots farmer resistance.

That was not on the table under the previous administration. And next comes a partnership between USDA and the Department of Justice,!ut/p/_s.7_0_A/7_0_1OB?contentidonly=true&contentid=2009/08/0368.xml. The partnership, announced in August, is initially focused on issues of monopoly in ag markets, but will be taking comments from the public on what other issues the workshops will explore until December 31. Workshops will be scheduled in 2010, both in Washington, DC and around the country. Locations have not yet been decided.

Monopoly control of markets is a troubling issue in American agriculture. Between subsidies and lack of buyers, corn and soybeans dominate modern agriculture, skewing food choices available to the consumer. Intensive monoculture farming, defended by the industry for its prodigious production, has come under fire for depleting soil fertility, erosion and loss of topsoil, depletion of wildlife habitat, air and water pollution and other environmental problems. It’s also implicated in a list of social and economic problems, from obesity, as cheap high-calorie processed foods dominate strapped consumer diets, to deterioration of rural society, as farmers respond to the need to accumulate ever greater acreage in order to make a living. Genetically modified crops raise issues of whether the food made from them is healthy, and the companies that hold the patents, such as Monsanto, have sued farmers after their fields have been pollinated by the patented plants.

Vilsack has supported GMOs in the past, and his allegiance to this technology was challenged a few days later at another conference of ag experts, the Community Food Security Coalition conference held in Des Moines, Iowa, Oct. 13.

The partnership between USDA and the Department of Justice suggests that serious legal remedies are on the table, even prosecution.

“For the first time ever, farmers, ranchers, consumers groups, agribusinesses and the federal government will openly discuss legal and economic issues associated with competition in the agriculture industry,” said Christine A. Varney, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in the press release. “This is an important step forward in determining the best course of action to address the unique competition issues in agriculture.”

For myself, I hope that abuses of power such as happened to Maurice Parr will be addressed. Parr, a seed cleaner, was featured in the documentary Food, Inc., crying as his deposition was being recorded, under legal pressure from corporate giant Monsanto to disclose names of his customers, many of whom had been his friends for years,

Vilsack’s direction thus far appears to be taking a turn toward a more integrated and accountable approach for corporate and sustainable agriculture.

Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, in Voyageur Press’ FFA Livestock Series.