Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Tom Vilsack speaks on December 11, 2020 after being nominated to serve as Agriculture Secretary.

Tom Vilsack speaks on December 11, 2020 after being nominated to serve as Agriculture Secretary. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Amid Broader Concerns Over Biden USDA Nominee, Watchdog Flags 'Disturbing Suppression' of Science by Vilsack

"Unless he pledges to implement significant safeguards for scientists, Tom Vilsack should not be confirmed. The days in which federal agencies function as scientific gulags should be behind us."

Jake Johnson

On top of concerns about his close industry ties, corporate-friendly policy record, and alarming civil rights history, President Joe Biden's Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack is also facing scrutiny over what one watchdog organization on Friday characterized as "disturbing" evidence that he improperly meddled in and suppressed scientific research during his previous tenure as head of USDA.

Throughout his nearly eight years as former President Barack Obama's USDA chief, Vilsack "routinely interfered with scientific work that big agriculture found bothersome," the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) alleged in a statement Friday, pointing to the direct testimony and survey responses of department scientists.

"Tom Vilsack's record on scientific integrity at USDA was appalling. Government research documenting what is really going in American agriculture does not need a corporate filter."
—Tom Whitehouse, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

"Tom Vilsack's record on scientific integrity at USDA was appalling," said PEER's executive director Tim Whitehouse. "Government research documenting what is really going in American agriculture does not need a corporate filter."

One notable example PEER cited is the case of Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, an agroecologist who served as a senior research entomologist and lab supervisor for the USDA Agriculture Research Service during Vilsack's time as head of the department.

In 2015, Lundgren lodged a whistleblower complaint alleging that his USDA supervisors suspended him as punishment for publishing research detailing the harms neonicotinoid insecticides—commonly referred to as "neonics"—cause to monarch butterflies.

"It is USDA policy that political suppression and manipulation of science are not to be tolerated, but it is empty rhetoric," then-PEER staff counsel Laura Dumais, who filed the complaint on Lundgren's behalf, said at the time. "Dr. Lundgren is suffering the proverbial professional death by a thousand cuts precisely because of the implications [of] his scientific work for agribusiness."

To demonstrate that concerns about Vilsack's approach to scientific research were not limited to a few isolated complaints, PEER pointed to a 2016 Office of Inspector General survey showing that around 120 USDA agency scientists believed their research findings had "been altered or suppressed for reasons other than technical merit."

Additionally, less than half of the more than 1,300 survey respondents said they felt USDA strongly promoted a "culture of scientific integrity" under Vilsack's leadership.

"Unless he pledges to implement significant safeguards for scientists, Tom Vilsack should not be confirmed," said Whitehouse. "The days in which federal agencies function as scientific gulags should be behind us."

PEER's scathing assessment of Vilsack's disregard for scientific integrity came days after a coalition of progressive advocacy groups including RootsAction.org and Food & Water Watch launched a campaign urging senators to block the former USDA chief's confirmation.

Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, is expected to appear before the Senate Agriculture Committee for his first confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

"Tom Vilsack, aka 'Mr. Monsanto,' served corporate interests for eight years as Secretary of Agriculture under Obama and continued to do so as head of one of the largest U.S. dairy lobbies after leaving office," the progressive campaign's website declares. "Vilsack ushered through a spineless GMO labeling standard rubber stamped by Big Ag, and sped-up the approval process for genetically modified crops. He allowed the meat industry to further monopolize—squeezing out small farmers—and scaled back oversight of poultry processing plants."

Emily Berch, a student at Iowa State University and an editorial intern at The Nation, argued Thursday that allowing Vilsack to return to the top of USDA would add "insult to the Democratic Party's long record of malign neglect toward rural Americans."

"Putting Vilsack back in charge at the USDA also ignores the advice of rural progressives and civil rights advocates," Berch argued. "While institutional knowledge can be an asset, it can also lead to a defense of the status quo, which, for a Vilsack-led USDA, means continuing to prioritize corporate agribusiness by sacrificing everyday Americans."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·


PG&E Charged With 11 Felony Counts—Including Manslaughter—Over 2020 Zogg Fire

"PG&E has a history with a repeated pattern of causing wildfires that is not getting better," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "It's only getting worse."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Hold My Pearls': Debbie Dingell Lets Marjorie Taylor Green Have It Over Abortion Rights

The Michigan Democrat engaged in a verbal altercation with the far-right Republican lawmaker from Georgia on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Jon Queally ·


Dems Who Opposed Pentagon Cuts Received Nearly 4x More Donations From Weapons Makers

The latest passage of the NDAA "is particularly strong evidence that Pentagon contractors' interests easily take precedence over national security and the public interest for too many members of Congress," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo