Over the last few weeks, there has been much buzz over and speculation about who President-elect Barack Obama would choose as the next Secretary of Agriculture; yesterday, Obama choose Tom Vilsack, a two-term governor of Iowa. To be blunt, I'm not pleased, but my opposition is a bit more nuanced than total rejection.
Leading up to Obama's choice for Secretary of Agriculture, an online letter had been circulating that encouraged the Obama administration to choose an Agricultural Secretary committed to reform, or, appropriately dubbed, change. Leaders in sustainable agriculture, such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, stepped forward to speak about their ideas on the role for the next Secretary of Agriculture. Pollan specifically suggested the position's title be changed to Secretary of Food to reflect the changes in our food system since the position was first created, when the majority of Americans were farmers, in comparison to now, when our system is based upon enterprise farms using machinery for farm labor. It is no longer our agricultural system we need to protect but rather the food these enterprises create for Americans to consume. All this advocacy and excitement created an air of hope for change.
Tom Vilsack is not the choice for change. He is from Iowa, a state focused on corn; he is part of the very system that is the problem in our food chain. Corn is a problem for a lot of reasons. Both Obama and Vilsack are supporters of using ethanol as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil; while using ethanol does reduce our use of foreign oil, it also raises the cost of corn (most ethanol in the US is made from corn), which in turn raises the cost of food as so much of our food includes corn and corn bi-products. Corn-based ethanol is also not a sustainable energy source in comparison with other bio-fuels such as sugar cane ethanol. In addition, corn farmers currently receive large subsidies to raise corn, which has led our agriculture system to become a mono culture and the majority of our food to be processed corn bi-products, due to the surplus corn produced. Nutritionally, this means Americans are not eating a diversity of foods, which leads Americans to not consume the diversity of nutrients their bodies require. This diet based on corn bi-products also means Americans are eating unhealthy corn bi-products such as hi fructose corn syrup; most of Americans health problems can be traced back to their unhealthy, corn-based diet. And again, I will say corn is a problem for many reasons.
Being from Iowa and a supporter of ethanol, it is quite probable that Tom Vilsack will be more of the same. Obama's choice of Vilsack is also considered a thank you to Iowa for the state's support of Obama in the election. To be fair, however, as Michael Pollan commented in this morning's interview of NPR Morning Edition, Vilsack has suggested caps on corn farmers subsidies and supports more food production on a local level. In addition, it is important to acknowledge Obama's choice for Secretary of Energy, Seven Chu, who is considered an early leader in alternative energy and, importantly, is opposed to ethanol as an alternative fuel. It is thus possible that Valsack's support of corn-based ethanol will be trumped by the Nobel prize winning Chu's opposition. I believe Pollan's statement of being "cautiously hopeful" is a good one.
And yes, the picture above is indeed of Tom Vilsack, our future Agricultural Secretary.