A trial lawyer and two-term Iowa governor from 1999 to 2007, Vilsack owns a 590-acre Iowa farm, about half of which is planted to crops. He told the committee he supports federal programs that assist organic agriculture, but he has not managed to persuade the consumers of organic foods that he can be trusted to safeguard their interests.
In the past, Vilsack has supported the genetic engineering of crops, which is viewed as a threat by organic farmers who cannot get organic certification for their produce if it is contaminated by pollen drift from transgenic crops. Official policy of the Agriclutre Department is that genetically engineered crops need not be regulated or labeled.
The Iowa influence: from left, Senator Tom Harkin, Senator Chuck Grassley and Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack at the committee hearing. (Photo courtesy office of Senator Harkin)
Some in the organic community also see Vilsack as a friend of corporate agribusiness interests, and they have mounted a petition drive to express their opposition to his nomination.
The Organic Consumers Association says it is "disappointed in this controversial appointment" of Vilsack and has gathered over 100,000 emails and petition signatures from organic consumers and farmers objecting to the appointment of the man they call a "biotech and biofuels booster."
This association has been drumming up support for a request to President-elect Barack Obama to "move beyond agribusiness as usual" by drafting Jim Riddle to head the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, the department that oversees organic food, farming, and standards.
Riddle is an organic farmer from Minnesota, former chair of the National Organic Standards Board, and a longtime advocate for sustainable and organic farming.
"With Riddle heading up the AMS, farmers markets, community supported agriculture, transition to organic programs, and the National Organic Program will finally receive the attention, technical assistance, and funding they deserve," said the Organic Consumers Association in a statement.
In response, a group of the organic industry's corporate executives has launched its own petition drive in support of Vilsack.
Officers of some of the largest corporate entities like Whole Foods, Stonyfield and United Natural Foods Inc., have signed on in support. Their petition, with about 500 signatories, includes many Iowa residents familiar with Vilsack when he was governor.
In a letter to the Obama transition team, The Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for family farmers, described the USDA's National Organic Program, NOP, as "dysfunctional" and asked for the Obama administration to make its rehabilitation a priority.
The letter described the NOPs long-standing adversarial relationship with the majority of organic farmers and consumers and the groups that represent them. It said, "Senior management, with oversight of the NOP, has treated industry stakeholders arrogantly and disrespectfully and has overridden NOP career staff when their findings might have been unfavorable to corporations with interests in the organic industry."
"We were and still are optimistic that when Mr. Obama talked about 'change' during his campaign, that he included a shift away from corporate agribusiness domination at the USDA," said Mark Kastel, a farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.
Organic farmers and consumers have many environmental concerns, among them genetic crop engineering, pest control, clean and sufficient water supplies, hormones in milk, manure management, the decline of pollinators such as honeybees, labeling of organic products, land use for biofuels, and a warming climate.
In his introductory remarks, committee chairman Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa raised the issue of organic foods, pointing out that "the demand for locally-grown and organic foods continues to grow - the fastest growing part of the food chain - providing new and expanding opportunities in rural communities."
Vilsack told the committee that if he becomes the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, he will promote renewable energy as a way to boost the rural economy.
The nominee mentioned "global climate change," a reduction in U.S. forest lands and the health care crisis as issues he intends to tackle.
"All of these serious challenges require a compelling new vision for the department, with the attention, dedication and leadership to make it happen," Vilsack said. "The president-elect has called on each of us to meet these challenges."
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, predicted Vilsack's confirmation would be "swift and speedy."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.