President-Elect Joe Biden has announced he will be nominating Tom Vilsack to return to the role he had for eight years under the Obama Administration. This is a major misstep from the Biden team, doubling down on an approach to agriculture that has failed farmers, rural communities, and the planet.
I remember watching newly confirmed Secretary Vilsack in 2009, giving the keynote speech at the Community Food Security Coalition Conference in Des Moines. There was a lot of optimism that he would lead the Obama Administration to confront the extreme abuses of corporate agriculture and push farming in a more sustainable and equitable direction.
But when asked what he would do to regulate agribusiness and support organic agriculture and community food systems, he said that conventional agriculture and organic agriculture were like his “two sons” and that he, therefore, couldn’t and wouldn’t choose one over the other. He was met with a chorus of boos from the audience, shocked at the suggestion that sustainable food production can co-exist with industrial agriculture. It literally cannot, as chemical drift will destroy organic crops.
And if industrial agriculture and ecological agriculture really were brothers, following the metaphor, then agribusiness would be like Cain, because it is trying to attack, undermine, discredit, and kill the movement of farmers, landless workers, indigenous people, BIPOC communities, immigrants, and fishers that are fighting for a better food system for all.
A closer look at Vilsack’s record
Things did not improve over Vilsack’s eight years leading the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He went on to shelve a report on anti-trust violations in agriculture – after a series of hearings in which family farmers risked their contracts to speak openly and courageously about how corporate monopolies were destroying their farms and their communities. His reason: it would be too hard to prosecute agribusiness companies. Many suspect he just caved to industry pressure.
He opted to “slow-roll” the “Fair Farm Rules” – regulations that would prevent meat and livestock companies from requiring farmers to sign abusive and exploitative contracts. These rules were only finalized in the last days of Obama’s presidency, allowing the Trump Administration to cancel them before implementation could even begin.
He allowed a right-wing conspiracy group to smear Shirley Sherrod, well-respected land rights activist and former head of the USDA’s rural development office in Georgia, who was then asked to resign and was essentially ousted from a department that too often presents as white and male.
He also endorsed the flurry of massive corporate agribusiness mergers in 2016 – Bayer and Monsanto, Dow and DuPont, ChemChina and Syngenta – even saying that these mergers would be good for farmers because they would bring more “innovation”. He added that technology and mechanization allowed more production with fewer farmers. Did he really think that farmers would “welcome” more concentration and consolidation and being driven out of business?
Oh, and did I mention he spent the last four years as CEO of the Dairy Export Council, an agribusiness trade group that saw dairy companies make profits as their farmers were going bankrupt and at risk of suicide?
This record would be troubling for any Administration at any point. But right now, it is particularly frustrating. The pandemic and the past four years of the Trump Administration have exposed the profound cracks in our food system. Farmers, workers, and communities are hurting badly. The COVID-19 crisis showed the problems with highly concentrated food supply chains, the dangers these pose to workers, and companies’ profound indifference to their worker rights. Meanwhile, shrinking wild spaces and industrialized agriculture make diseases like coronavirus more likely to emerge. Climate change continues to worsen. And a massive economic and farm crisis – which is only deepening as corporations get bigger and grab more resources and land – is pushing out more family farms every day.
So why did President-elect Biden nominate Tom Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture again when actually addressing this crisis requires radical transformation of the extractive and destructive models of farming?
There wasn’t a lack of other options. Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio – who has worked on agriculture policy for a decade and has been a champion for family farmers, African-American farmers, and anti-hunger efforts – was interested in the position, and President Elect Biden clearly thinks highly of her since he’s expected to nominate her to another role.
Biden was also considering former Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who was reportedly passed over due to concerns about her close ties to agribusiness. However, Vilsack has even more corporate ties than Heitkamp, whose political career also includes a vote against Justice Kavanaugh that likely cost her Senate seat, because of her family’s experience with sexual assault. Perhaps she could have brought that courage to U.S. agriculture, where sexual assaults against farm workers are still common and where patriarchal power is entrenched.
Vilsack, the Biden Administration, and all Political Leaders Need to Make a Choice – Do They Serve the People or the Corporations?
What this nomination says about the incoming administration and our country’s political situation is deeply troubling. We need enormous change in how we produce food and agriculture, but the fact that Secretary Vilsack is the choice points to the power of agribusiness in blocking that change.
If confirmed, Secretary Vilsack will have to make a choice. Will he expand and strengthen programs in the USDA that promote conservation and shift research into agriculture based on ecological principles? Or will he promote corporate carbon markets, large-scale, food-based biofuels, and bioenergy which greenwash industrial agriculture without really supporting farmers or healing the planet?
Will a Secretary Vilsack embrace the human right to food and partner with other departments and agencies to break up the monopoly power of agribusiness companies and investigate abuses? Or will he defend agribusiness companies and promote the increasing power of Big Data in agriculture?
The problems facing the country are wide-ranging, severe, and global in nature, requiring not just transformative solutions but also new ways of working that recognize the emergency that we are all in. There is an imperative to implement human rights across the board, to focus on development based in solidarity, and to engage with the rest of the world through cooperation not competition. Giving Secretary Vilsack another four years at USDA seems unlikely to bring about that transformation.