A few hours before inauguration day, while preparing to move into the White House as president of the United States, Joe Biden made a decision widely criticised by many of his supporters by nominating Tom Vilsack as head of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
This isn’t the first time Vilsack, a 70-year-old politician and lawyer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been chosen for this role. After eight years as the governor of Iowa (1999-2007), he was selected by then-president Barack Obama to lead the USDA and did so for both the leader’s terms, from 2009 to 2017, coinciding with Biden’s vice-presidency.
The choices Vilsack made during that time are a cause for concern for many of the industry’s stakeholders, such as organic agriculture proponents, small-scale farm owners, Black farmers and those who advocate for reforming the department. Let’s start at the beginning.
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a non-profit organisation that promotes organic farming in the United States made its dissatisfaction known immediately. Its statement notes that in 2001 Vilsack was chosen as “Governor of the Year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organisation (now Biotechnology Innovation Organisation), the largest trade association in the biotech industry. According to the OCA, Vilsack approved more genetically modified organisms (GMOs) than any other secretary of agriculture in the country’s history: at least 13 of them.
Many of these were developed by the notorious multinational corporation Monsanto, including sugarbeets (whose approval was then found to have been illegal), alfalfa, corn, cotton and soy. The crops are all designed to survive use of aggressive agrochemicals, such as the infamous glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup sold by the very same corporation. Hence, Vilsack’s nickname; “Mr. Monsanto”.
Furthermore, Vilsack is president of the US Dairy Export Council (USDEC), which represents the interests of the dairy industry. According to the OCA, the USDEC funds industrial farming and the use of genetically modified, pesticide-rich feeds, while also lobbying to keep prices paid to farmers below production costs, therefore incentivising the consolidation of increasingly larger farming operations.
Pls s&s @JoeBiden to select a Sec of Ag, who actually cares about the health & welfare of our animals! Vilsack is affiliated w/ ranchers/farmers, has a history of turning a blind eye to animals in captivity & has & led programs of mass killings of animals https://t.co/7Y3rZJROhh
Outgoing agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue didn’t invest much in mitigating climate change, mirroring his boss Donald Trump’s approach. Now, many hope in a change of course. The USDA could become “one of the biggest sponsors of climate action”, especially thanks to the large amount of funding at its disposal. Its budget includes billions of dollars for programmes that could be used to bring wind and solar power to rural communities or fund low-impact farming practices that help capture atmospheric carbon.
Moreover, the department has access to the Commodity Credit Corporation, a sort of bank that the Trump administration used for payments to farmers but which could be converted into a “carbon bank” to provide incentives to those who limit their greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, the agency is also responsible for the Forest Service, which manages some 80 million hectares of land across the US. This body will have an increasingly important role in tackling the frequency and severity of wildfiresin the country, which are becoming increasingly dangerous due to global warming. The service is responsible for launching crucial reforestation programmes that could make a huge difference in the fight against the climate crisis.
David versus Goliath
Those who hoped the Department of Agriculture would be led by someone willing and able to undermine the status quo have many reasons to be concerned, as Vilsack’s nomination seems likely to favour large corporations over small businesses.
“Vilsack has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants,” claims Mitch Jones, policy director for environmental advocacy group Food and Water Watch. If he is to stay true to his previous track record, this could actual damage Biden, who tried – and failed – to garner support from “rural America” on the campaign trail. A majority of farmers still voted for Trump, also due to the Republican administration’s unprecedented federal aid in response to the trade war first and coronavirus later.
Perdue, however, mismanaged national food aid programmes for low-income families and schools. It is estimated that one in four Americans adhere to at least one of these programmes every year, so a significant funding boost is expected from the new secretary especially in light of a pandemic that has dramatically increased unemployment.
Biden probably chose Vilsack because of his experience, considering him to be a safe choice to rebuild the agency after four difficult years, and in spite of farming lobbies favouring North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp. On the other hand, progressives were hoping for the nomination of Marcia Fudge, a Black congresswoman representing Ohio who was instead nominated as Secretary for Housing and Urban Development.
Vilsack squandered eight years of opportunity to address complaints of discrimination in loans and other assistance programs at the USDA.
Despite the fact that President Biden has “boasted” about building the most diverse cabinet in history, Black farmers in the US were hopeful that they might see themselves represented with Fudge heading the USDA. But it wasn’t to be. The Washington Post reported that a few days before Christmas, Vilsack held a videoconference with some of the most important civil rights activists and spokespeople for Black farming businesses. These representatives were expecting acknowledgement of the fact that the USDA “marginalised and systematically discriminatedagainst Black farmers for decades,” both through legislation and perverse market practices, as well as application procedures for loans and state-run financing programmes. As a consequence, over the last century land owned by Black Americans has decreased by 85 per cent.
“The USDA has two separate administration processes, one for socially disadvantaged farmers and one for similarly situated White farmers,” comments Corey Lea, a rancher from Tennessee. “When a White farmer puts in a complaint, it is heard within 180 days. The Black farmer’s complaint goes into a pile and never gets heard”.
During the conference call in December, it seems Vilsack didn’t acknowledge the department’s culpability but did admit to his own failings, stating that there is more he could have done and that he wants to remedy this. “He has to create a culture of racial and social justice across the agency to even begin to undo the harm that has occurred,” says Shirley Sherrod, who took part in the video call. The first action expected from Vilsack is the promotion of the Justice for Black Farmers Act introduced to the Senate in November by a group of legislators that includes Elizabeth Warren. This legislation is expected to at least partially improve the situation.
All in all, it is clear Vilsack is one to keep an eye on in the coming months. Considering the level of influence the United States have on the rest of the world as well as the USDA’s impact on Black communities and the climate the agriculture secretary has a lot of power in their hands. And, as Uncle Ben once told Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility”. At a historical juncture where life really feels like a comic book, with all-powerful supervillains threatening our very existence, this sentence becomes even more meaningful. So, Mr. Monsanto, don’t let us down.