Last week Friend o'Ethicurean and Rural Policy Organizer Steph Larsen wrote a guest post about the realpolitik choices President-Elect Obama's transition team are reportedly considering for Secretary of Agriculture. Today Steph's colleague at the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, John Crabtree — a pro-subsidy-reform small farmer and also a policy organizer — has taken a close look at the man widely acknowledged to be the leading candidate: former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack.
Crabtree, who has known Vilsack for over a decade, talked to him directly about two issues that the sustainable food & farming community seems most concerned about when it comes to the possibility of Vilsack holding the purse strings of the deep-pocketed USDA: reforming farm payment programs and his previous support of biotechnology. On the latter, the specifics Vilsack gives of safeguards he would want to implement to protect organic crops from genetically engineered ones are nice, but as Crabtree points out, switching philosophies to the precautionary principle that Europe uses would be even better. Still, he writes, "I have disagreed with Governor Vilsack over biotechnology issues several times. But I am encouraged by the responses above and by his open-minded approach and willingness to learn from past experience and mistakes alike." Crabtree also discussed with Vilsack another pressing issue we'd love to see the USDA concern itself with: livestock market reforms, to protect smaller ranchers from the deleterious effects of the ongoing massive consolidation in the livestock industry.
Vilsack hews tightly to the biotech-industry party line; and he hotly promoted corn-based ethanol while governor. On the other hand, none 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.
The enemy of our enemies just may end up our friend at the USDA.