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Tom Vilsack

Then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testifies during a hearing before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee September 21, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The committee held a hearing on "The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Current State of the Farm Economy." (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sustainable Farming Advocates Warn Biden That Vilsack 'A Very Bad Pick' for Ag Secretary

"America needs an Agriculture secretary that will finally prioritize sustainable family farming and national food security over corporate profits."

Andrea Germanos

New reporting that President-elect Joe Biden is strongly considering having Tom Vilsack reprise his role as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture elicited warnings from food safety groups that Vilsack would put the interests of Big Ag over those of a more sustainable and just food system.

"Tom Vilsack has a long and detailed record on food and agriculture—a record that clearly demonstrates why he would be a very bad pick to lead the USDA," Mitch Jones, policy director at Food & Water Watch, said in a statement.

Politico reported Monday that the president-elect "is leaning toward picking" Vilsack, who "was a top rural and agriculture policy adviser to the Biden campaign," for the role.

Vilsack also served as governor of Iowa from 1999 until 2007 and USDA secretary under the Obama administration.

Two other names that have emerged as possibilities for USDA chief are former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio. Jennifer Granholm, a former governor and attorney general of Michigan, is also now reported to be in the running.

Bloomberg News also reported Monday on Vilsack being the favored candidate. "He is now president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which promotes sales of American dairy products abroad," reported Bloomberg, noting his previous backing of trade deals including the Trans Pacific Partnership and President's Donald Trump's USMCA.

From the outlet:

Some supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders campaigned against Vilsack when he was under consideration to be [2016 candidate Hillary] Clinton's vice president, branding him "Mr. Monsanto" and citing his role in brokering a compromise on legislation labeling foods containing genetically modified organisms. Sanders opposed the national legislation, which overrode a stricter Vermont state law.

Jaydee Hanson, Center for Food Safety's policy director, called Vilsack's possible selection "a huge step backwards in our urgent need to support agricultural systems that protect public health, the environment, and mitigate the ongoing climate crisis.”

Hanson cited as damning evidence Vilsack's previous time at the Cabinet position as well as his post-Obama administration work supporting corporate dairy operations.

"While serving as Secretary under President Obama, Mr. Vilsack supported chemically-dependent industrial agriculture that resulted in millions more pounds of pesticides released into the environment, contaminating our water and soils and harming human health and wildlife. In addition," Hanson continued, "during his tenure the meat industry grew larger and more concentrated, contributing to the climate crisis."

"Mergers in the meat industry grew larger and larger—even when huge Chinese and Brazilian operations bought up U.S. operations," said Hanson, "Vilsack's USDA did not protest."

"Vilsack supported the expansion of pesticide-promoting, genetically engineered crops, and was not a strong supporter of organic agriculture," added Hanson.

Food & Water Watch's Jones, in his statement, likened Vilsack's background with that of Heitkamp, who's seen by progressive groups as advancing corporate agriculture interests.

"Much like Senator Heitkamp, Vilsack has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants—some of whom he has gone to work for—while failing to fight for struggling family farmers at every turn. America needs an Agriculture secretary that will finally prioritize sustainable family farming and national food security over corporate profits," Jones said.

Further staining Vilsack's background is his record on civil rights at the agency. The Counter reported last year that his claims of civil rights accomplishments were "extremely misleading or false."

For over two years, we have investigated USDA's treatment of black farmers under the Obama administration and found a disturbing pattern: Though USDA came to enjoy a reputation among policymakers and the press as a steady force for good in the lives of historically marginalized farmers, Vilsack and others in the department made cosmetic changes, and little else.

Under Vilsack, USDA employees foreclosed on black farmers with outstanding discrimination complaints, many of which were never resolved. At the same time, USDA staff threw out new complaints and misrepresented their frequency, while continuing to discriminate against farmers. The department sent a lower share of loan dollars to black farmers than it had under President Bush, then used census data in misleading ways to burnish its record on civil rights. And although numerous media outlets portrayed the Pigford settlement payments as lavish handouts—a narrative that originated with right-wing publisher Andrew Breitbart—USDA actually failed to adequately compensate black farmers, and many of them lost their farms.

Food & Water Action and Center for Food Safety are among dozens of advocacy groups that have pushed Biden to choose Fudge as Agriculture Secretary, calling her "an ally to farmers, food-chain workers, consumers, and rural communities."

Fudge "is best positioned to help the department navigate today's unprecedented challenges—from the ongoing rural crisis, to climate change, to the pandemic's rupturing of our food system," a joint letter backing the congresswoman states.


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