Ag groups back Vilsack nomination | TSLN.com

Ag groups back Vilsack nomination

Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

DTN file photo

WASHINGTON (DTN) — Farm, agribusiness and consumer leaders praised President-elect Barack Obama’s nomination Wednesday of former Iowa Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack to be agriculture secretary as a centrist choice who could represent all of agriculture. However, in Vilsack’s and Obama’s statements, there were signs of the conflicts that the new ag secretary and the administration will face as they try to press their priorities on agriculture, nutrition and energy policy.

At a news conference in Chicago, Vilsack said he would put “nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs,” an indication he will get involved in a congressional battle next year over reauthorization of child nutrition programs. Nutrition advocates want those programs to address child obesity and disease, but the meat, dairy and sugar industries are likely to fight changes that would reduce federal and school purchases of their products.

Robert Guenther of United Fresh, the fruit and vegetable group, said that even though Vilsack comes from a state that does not produce many vegetable products, he has been an advocate for fruits and vegetables in school snack programs.

Iowa has benefited perhaps more than any other state from higher commodity prices due to federal support for corn-based ethanol, but neither Obama nor Vilsack mentioned corn-based ethanol on Wednesday. Even so, the Renewable Fuels Association stated Vilsack “has demonstrated a commitment to continuing the innovation and evolution of America’s ethanol industry.”

Despite Vilsack’s track record on ethanol, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which opposes government support for corn-based ethanol, was even more enthusiastic about Vilsack’s nomination.

In an e-mail, GMA noted that as co-chair of a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on Climate Change, Vilsack “indicated his understanding of the need our country has to phase out domestic subsidies for mature biofuels such as conventional corn-based ethanol and to focus on second generation, non-food crop biofuel technologies. We view this as a great opportunity for USDA to lead the way to change course when it comes to our nation’s biofuels policy, moving away from the promotion of corn ethanol and toward energy solutions that do not pit our energy needs against our need for affordable food and enhanced environmental protections.”

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Commodity and general farm organizations were filled with praise for the pick. National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, who was also a candidate for agriculture secretary, said Vilsack is a “great choice.” The National Wheat Growers Association, which has been struggling to develop biotech seed that will improve wheat yields and be acceptable to consumers, praised Vilsack as an advocate for biotechnology. American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman also praised Vilsack for his pro-biotech and pro-trade positions.

Countering the agricultural love-fest, the Organic Consumers Association, which opposes biotechnology and had openly opposed Vilsack’s nomination, said Obama’s choice “sent a chill through the sustainable food and farming community who have been lobbying for a champion in the new administration.”

“Vilsack’s nomination sends the message that dangerous, untested, unlabeled genetically engineered crops will be the norm in the Obama administration,” said Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association. “Our nation’s future depends on crafting a forward-thinking strategy to promote organic and sustainable food and farming and address the related crises of climate change, diminishing energy supplies, deteriorating public health and economic depression.”

On the other hand, Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, applauded the nomination, noting Vilsack is a past recipient of BIO’s Governor of the Year award for his support of the industry’s economic growth and agricultural biotechnology research.

“Vilsack is keenly aware of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology and the role that science and innovation can play in helping farmers grow more food in a more environmentally friendly manner,” Greenwood stated.

The Humane Society of the United States, which advocates more humane treatment of animals raised for meat and comes into conflict with most farm groups, had urged Obama to appoint Vilsack and praised his appointment.

Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said Vilsack “has the smarts and experience to bring this agency into the 21st century and to confront the enormous challenges that his predecessors have largely sidestepped. But it will be a tough job, and he’ll have to steel his spine for the job ahead. Vilsack clearly has the mettle to do this; as Iowa governor, he vetoed a bill to allow the shooting of mourning doves — an act that has saved more than 1 million doves from target shooting in the years since and cut against the conventional wisdom about disappointing and defying the [National Rifle Association] and the gun lobby.

“USDA is a dinosaur,” Pacelle continued, “with animal welfare programs an odd fit within an agency that has as its core mission the promotion of agriculture, including the production of animals for meat, egg and dairy products. USDA leaders, acting in concert with a variety of industries, have largely viewed animals as commodities, rather than living, feeling individuals, and their policies and enforcement actions have reflected that worldview and consistently fallen short of a responsible standard of conduct for years. We pledge to work with him, all the while advocating to advance the broad mission of the HSUS.”

The Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, where consumer advocate Carol Tucker Foreman is a fellow, said Vilsack “has made clear in public statements and actions his commitment to fighting hunger, supporting child nutrition programs, assuring a safe food supply and addressing water and soil conservation.”

jerry hagstrom can be reached at jerry.hagstrom@dtn.com.