Throughout his campaign, President Obama maintained that one of his priorities as president would be address to the energy crisis. In the quest to achieve an energy-independent nation in the near future, the selection of the Secretary of Agriculture was a rather critical one. The search for alternative sources of energy has led to increased production of biofuels, or sources of energy derived from plant sources, such as ethanol. This closely links the fields of energy and agriculture, making the Department of Agriculture a key part of the Obama administration’s efforts to solve the energy crisis. In the former governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, President Obama has found someone closely tied to the Grain Belt who will help him realize his goals. Both men have a passion for pursuing alternative fuels for environmental sustainability and self-reliance.
Although Vilsack has received praise and support from various environmental and energy-conscious groups, such as the Corn Refiners Association and the Environmental Defense Fund, his nomination has also been met with sharp criticism. The organic food movement that has swept across our nation is less than pleased with Vilsack, as he seems indifferent to their cause. Vilsack, however, cannot be fully blamed for his lack of attention to the organic issue, as this item seems to be missing from President Obama’s agenda as well.
Almost immediately following Obama’s election, a petition sprang out of the folds of the organic and environmental fronts, offering him an array of options for Secretary of Agriculture that the movement would support. Vilsack was not among their recommendations. Known as Food Democracy Now, this movement acquired electronic signatures by means of an online petition, collecting almost 85,000 in all. This number may seem small, but the movement extends much further than this online petition. Other websites and organizations have circulated similar petitions, including the Organic Consumers Association. America’s interest in the organic food movement is also demonstrated by the success of critically acclaimed journalist and author Michael Pollan. Pollan addresses the problems associated with big agribusiness and the advantages of small organic farming in his two books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. The sheer number of these books that have been purchased indicates widespread interest in organic culture.
Vilsack’s lack of attention to the organic industry is not the only thing that has created such an uproar. He has a somewhat lengthy list of issues that has led to numerous requests by organic consumers and farmers to halt Vilsack’s confirmation. Vilsack’s general mission to combat global warming certainly receives support, but his close ties to giant corn conglomerates and the politics of government subsidization raise a great deal of concern. Biofuels and ethanol production will greatly benefit the farmers in the state of his former governorship, and he perhaps does not have the best interests of the environment and fuel independence in mind. In fact, biofuels themselves often receive criticism because of the amount of energy required to produce them and their impact on food prices and starvation issues across the globe, making Vilsack’s support of their production even more of a concern. The rest of his expertise surrounding agriculture further conflicts with the goals of proponents of an organic lifestyle, as Vilsack supports genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops and the cloning of livestock.
Vilsack’s nomination, while representing the immediate needs of President Obama’s energy goals, does not promote the needs of a large segment of our population. Concern for a sustainable future and the health of our nation fuels the organic movement, and unfortunately, the time has come for politics to get involved. Even Michelle Obama has been rumored to have switched to a partially organic household in the interest of protecting her children’s health. The future of our health and our environment depends greatly on how we handle food and who represents our interests in the political arena. Currently, there is another petition circulating through the Internet at www.fooddemocracynow.org, with recommendations for USDA undersecretary positions. I urge you to consult this website to offer a voice in the USDA that will be able to counter Vilsack.