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Tilting at Windmills

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December 17, 2008

VILSACK GETS THE NOD.... A month ago, the Washington Post called former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) "a near shoo-in for secretary of agriculture." A couple of weeks later, Vilsack told reporters in Iowa he "won't be the next agriculture secretary."

As it turns out, the initial reports were right. Vilsack will be introduced as Obama's pick to head the Department of Agriculture at a press conference today in Chicago.

When it comes to the nomination, there's no question that Vilsack, a "strong proponent of renewable energy and developing the nation's alternative fuel industry," knows a great deal about agriculture policy, but there are reasonable doubts about whether he's on the right track.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack are regarded as staunch advocates of ethanol and other bio-fuels as a way to reduce the nation's reliance on foreign oil. And Mr. Obama and Democrats in Congress are working on a major economic stimulus package, in which they intend to promote the creation of thousands of new jobs tied to "green energy" industries, including the production of solar and wind energy.

One of the first major decisions Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack may have to make is whether to grant the ethanol industry's requests for billions in federal aid in the stimulus bill, which Mr. Obama has said he hopes to sign into law quickly, perhaps on his first day in office.

"The big issue for him and any incoming secretary is going to be biofuels, that's the sector that right now is in such a volatile position," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that is a leading critic of federal farm subsidies. American farmers, Mr. Cook said, are "hitched to both the food system and the energy system, both of which are oscillating."

About a month ago, Ezra Klein made a compelling case that Vilsack is problematic, given his ceaseless support for corn subsidies, and the likelihood that his role on Obama's team would mean "treating agricultural policy as if the relevant constituency is food producers rather than food consumers."

But the news may not be that bad. Vilsack's position on subsidies has been discouraging, but as Ezra later noted, "his energy policy has been notably forward-looking, and so it's possible he could come around."

Indeed, Grist's Tom Philpott noted a few weeks ago, "[N]one other than Grist's own David Roberts declared his energy plan during last year's Democratic primaries the 'ballsiest and most detailed any candidate from either party has offered.' And Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told me that Big Ag commodity groups had mounted a backroom campaign against Vilsack's bid for USDA chief. Evidently, the former governor is more of a champion of conservation programs than they can tolerate."

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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The problem with reducing corn subsidies is that most farmers will go under without them. See "The Omnivore's Dilemma" for an explanation of this problem at the level of teh individual farmer.

Note that ADM and ConAgra BUY their corn. They don't grow it themselves. No money in that.

Posted by: CN on December 17, 2008 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

And BUYing all that corn has driven up food prices - this has hurt the organic growers - feed for livestock has soared.

Nicholas Kristoff of the NYT wrote, Sunday, about the need for changing the Dept of Ag to the Deparment of Food - Think consumers of food, and not the CEOs of giant agri business operations. The small farmer is being driven out of business. The Ag Schools cater only to Big Business because of the money flowing into research needed by the ADMs of the world - How to stuff more anti-biotics into production animals thus lowering our immune system. Any wonder why we require more powerful anti-biotics for infections?

With Salazar and, now, Vilsack, the superb Obama team has hit major speed bumps. And, no, Interior and Agriculture are not throw away appointments, as it appears to be the case of these two.

Posted by: berttheclock on December 17, 2008 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

Subsidies are never, ever going away. Why won't people understand that?

Posted by: MNPundit on December 17, 2008 at 9:34 AM | PERMALINK

Although its perhaps inevitable that an Ag secretary will focus on the production side of the game, given the politics, the fact is that over half of the Department's budget goes to food assistance programs (food stamps, school lunch, etc.), an area that gets essentially zip attention from the secretary in ANY administration. Seems unlikely that Vilsack would be one to remedy that problem.

Posted by: dcsusie on December 17, 2008 at 9:39 AM | PERMALINK

Copied from my comments at Gristmill:


1. Bailouts (economic stimulus) to include the corn ethanol industry. (Bailouts of corn ethanol have been predicted by me and several others in previous postings, long before our current economic crisis.)

2. Push to increase the "blend wall" of ethanol/gasoline from 10% to higher levels to maintain progress toward meeting the federal renewable fuels standard.

Recently, delegates at the Illinois Farm Bureau state meeting "recommended the State of Illinois set a goal of incorporating a minimum of 20 percent overall ethanol into gasoline used statewide by 2012." FarmWeek, Dec. 15, 2008

The advocates of this push to increase blend percentages see this as an essential to moving past 15 billion gallons toward the national 36 billion gallon goal. They want to do this ahead of the actual commercial production of cellulosic ethanol, "facilitating" the environment for "greener" ethanol.

I think we are probably safe in characterizing the new Ag department headed by Vilsack as continuing to play the tune of big ag as represented by Monsanto, Dupont, ADM, Conagra, John Deere, etc.

The technocratic elites are alive and well in the Obama administration. Any other presidency would have provided the same "choice" (with particular emphasis on Vilsack).

Posted by: lou on December 17, 2008 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

Not corn, but beets are our future.
Beets have a greater energy yield per pound than corn when converted to biofuel. They don't mess with the food supply either.

Posted by: coral on December 17, 2008 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

Corn subsidies may never go away, but they should.

Ethanol is, at best, a very temporary stopgap measure for the sole purpose of reducing foreign oil dependence. Investments in almost every other alternative energy choice would be a better long-term solution. Ethanol production is inefficient, does little for CO2 reduction, and requires at least as much retooling as anything else.

Meanwhile, we're being drowned in corn syrup. If you've ever tasted anything back-to-back with sugar vs. corn syrup, it's clear who the winner is. Unfortunately we've got a sugar monopoly going on, too. Corn and sugar are two cases where we should actually move the market to be more free.

Sorry, not a big fan of corn here (other than on the cob).

Posted by: Franklin on December 17, 2008 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

Very disappointing. Nothing could portend more of the same in US agriculture policy than this pick. It is almost stunning in its lack of imagination and vision.

As one establishment centrist after another is lined up in the cabinet, we're supposed to believe that these individuals, because they are perceived as "safe" by the public and the establishment, will be able to push progressive change. Well, I will believe it when I see it.

Posted by: dbeach on December 17, 2008 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

Sugar and cotton subsidies should be the first to go. We are not efficient producers of these, and by subsidizing them we depress world prices. This in turn causes a great deal of damage to the third and fourth world farmers who depend on them.

We are pumping a great deal of military aid into places like Mali which has a problem with AlQueda of the Magreb. Letting their farmers get a decent price for their cotton would do at least as much good via the soft power route.

Posted by: snoey on December 17, 2008 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

Some may consider it cynical to suggest, but it's just possible that Vilsack's support for corn subsidies had something to do with his desire to support his state constituents.

Perhaps, just perhaps, as an officeholder representing all Americans, he will adjust his perception of his constituency to include non-Iowans.

Just sayin'.

Posted by: melior on December 17, 2008 at 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

This is an extremely disappointing and unfortunate appointment.

As John Nichols wrote in The Nation earlier this week, when it appeared that Vilsack would not be the nominee:

Vilsack is a capable administrator with the right partisan credentials.

But he was only at the top of the list of Agriculture secretary prospects because he is a prominent Democrat who comes from what Washington insiders know as a "farm state." As governor of Iowa, Vilsack had to engage with farm issues. But that embrace was anything but inspired. Family farm activists, fair-trade campaigners and advocates for organic foods were regularly disappointed by the stands he took. The Organic Consumers Association was blunt, declaring: "Vilsack has a glowing reputation as being a schill for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto."

Reviews like that one led Obama's transition team, and Vilsack himself, to recognize that the Iowan was not the right choice.

Obama can do better, much better.

It's too bad that Obama didn't do "much better" because our current industrial food system is a catastrophe, as PETA's Bruce Friedrich described in a recent article:

Two extensive reports released in April indicate that our current method of devising food policy is broken and that the current system is doing tremendous harm in many areas, including those that are of particular interest to President-elect Obama: human health, the environment, and global poverty.

The first of these reports, "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," was produced by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, a major project of the Pew Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Commission comprised 15 members, including ranchers and health-focused professors (e.g., Marion Nestle) as well as a former governor of Kansas (John Carlin), a former secretary of agriculture (Dan Glickman), a former assistant surgeon general/chief of staff to the surgeon general, and the president of the Western Montana Stockgrowers Association. After more than two years of research, which included heavy lobbying by the meat industries, the Commission released its report explicitly comparing the state of agriculture today to the "military industrial complex" feared by Dwight Eisenhower. Upon investigation, the Commission found what it calls an "agro-industrial complex—an alliance of agricultural commodity groups, scientists at academic institutions who are paid by the industry, and their friends on Capitol Hill."

One of the truisms of Washington politics is that agribusiness won't allow a sane food policy in the U.S. This sad fact is just as true of Democratic as of Republican administrations, as detailed by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI). Both wrote their strongest exposés about the issue during the Clinton administration. And although I'm currently discussing the executive branch, the problem infects Congress as well-whether under Democratic or Republican control (as documented by the Pew Commission, Schlosser, and the CPI).

The results of the farmed-animal industry's self-governance have been disastrous. As the Commission explains, "Our diminishing land capacity for producing food animals, combined with dwindling freshwater supplies, escalating energy costs, nutrient overloading of soil, and increased antibiotic resistance, will result in a crisis unless new laws and regulations go into effect in a timely fashion. ... This process must begin immediately and be fully implemented within 10 years". In its executive summary, the Commission writes, "Commissioners have determined that the negative effects of the [factory animal farming] system are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore. Significant changes must be implemented and must start now."

A similar report ("CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations") by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) was also released in April, reaching similar conclusions and making similar recommendations.

In addition to the other issues, the UCS report details the tens of billions of dollars the meat industry receives in taxpayer subsidies every year. Remarkably, factory farms are so economically inefficient that factory farm representatives claim the entire meat industry would cease to exist if forced to pay even a tiny fraction back in the form of meaningful clean-air legislation.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, not one of either reports' recommendations was included in either the House or Senate versions of the Farm Bill—or even meaningfully discussed.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on December 17, 2008 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

Between his support for ethanol and "clean coal," you have to wonder if Obama has any clue how to address our energy problems.

Posted by: not the one on December 17, 2008 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

Anyone hoping for a pick for AgSec who would be antagonistic towards subsidies and ethanol wasn't being realistic. Vilsack at least has gone on the record and fought against things like greater concentration of agribusiness in the meat packing sector and has said he wants to curtail subsidy payments to huge corporate farm operations while maintaining them for smaller family farms. That's not a bad place to start from. Also, Vilsack has been a big proponent of wind power and is concerned about climate change and that's not a small thing given how much agriculture factors into that.

Posted by: David W. on December 17, 2008 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

I like John Nichols, but he's mistaken if he thinks the US AgSec's #1 job is to support organic farming.

As for meat consumption, that's definitely something to curtail eventually in a world where food supplies are no longer so plentiful. But that's a hard sell to a public that loves it's steak and burgers.

Posted by: David W. on December 17, 2008 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK
Sugar and cotton subsidies should be the first to go. We are not efficient producers of these, and by subsidizing them we depress world prices. This in turn causes a great deal of damage to the third and fourth world farmers who depend on them.

We are pumping a great deal of military aid into places like Mali which has a problem with AlQueda of the Magreb. Letting their farmers get a decent price for their cotton would do at least as much good via the soft power route.
Posted by: snoey on December 17, 2008

Very interesting. Now, go to www.change.gov and tell Obama!

Posted by: MarkH on December 17, 2008 at 8:24 PM | PERMALINK



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