May 21, 2009

Vilsack Speaks!
Well, okay, USDA Chief Tom Vilsack isn't exactly a shrinking violet. But he just sat down with the Washingon Post for a lengthy interview. Let's call it Tom Vilsack: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

The Good: Vilsack came out strong for a government role in addressing the obesity epidemic and once again noted that obesity and hunger in this country are two sides of the same bum nickel:
We have too many children who are hungry and too many children who are obese and overweight, and we have to address both problems, and they're actually twins. ...In many ways, they stem from the same set of issues and circumstances.

We need to work very closely with schools, both in terms of the quality of their school breakfast and school lunch programs and the availability of those programs, removing the stigma from participating in those programs, and also taking a look at what's in the vending machines, making sure particularly at the elementary and middle school that what we are providing, both in portion size and in terms of calorie intake are appropriate, and we need to do a better job of locating grocery stores in both inner-city and rural communities and the food deserts.

That's all good stuff -- especially regarding an increased federal role in addressing food deserts. And this is a nice bit, too:

I talked to the Grocers Association today about that issue. I think that many grocers are prepared to help begin to try to figure out why we have so many convenience stores and fast-food locations in urban centers and rural communities, but we can't have a grocery store.

So we end up with poor people spending more money for food and food that may be not as nutritious as they could if they had access to fresh fruits and vegetables...

Whoa. Did he just say what I think he said? Well, I'm sure Big Food will remind him that he didn't really mean to suggest its products are less nutritious. But here's the quote that will thrill some hearts in the progressive food movement.

We need to continue to expand farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, because that is how you link those locally grown fruits and vegetables, and those entrepreneurs I talked about earlier, to consumers locally.

The USDA has some decent farmers markets programs but, you know what they say, any time the Secretary of Agriculture talks about local food, an angel gets its wings. Oh, and those entrepreneurs he was talking about? Those were the growing ranks of small and organic farmers. In response to a question on whether organic or "homegrown" farming can replace industrial ag, Vilsack said this:

[T]he Census that was done recently of U.S. Agriculture... showed 108,000 new initiatives and new entrepreneurial opportunities starting n the country. These are small farmers, probably selling a couple thousand dollars' worth of product.

It is a growth opportunity for agriculture. It's a way in which we can re-populate rural communities. It's a way in which USDA can be engaged by promoting community-supported agriculture, by promoting farmers' markets and a new take to rural development, which is important, and we'd like to see those small operations migrate into a mid-sized operation. So we're going to look for ways to link them up with local consumers and institutional buyers.

Now whether or not these farms are all organic, they are certainly not monoculture-based, pesticide and synthetic fertilizer-intensive operations. If the USDA sees fit to "repopulate" rural communities by encouraging small farms through an improved distribution infrastructure that's going to go a long way toward encouraging commodity crop farmers, whose only buyer is the local grain elevator, to shift towards higher value crops like fruits and veg. Good stuff for sure! Unless, of course, the USDA just sends out extension agents to these small farms to explain how to expand through the liberal application of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. That would suck.

Oh, and Vilsack also declared his love for organic practices generally.
USDA has... to be supportive of all types of agriculture. Asking me to choose between organic and production agriculture is sort of like asking me which of my two boys I love the most. I love them both.
Well, shucks! Of course, I can hear Monsanto, and probably the American Farm Bureau, gnashing their teeth -- they might want to throw a few more million bucks into the Hand that Feed U.S...

Let me finish off this section with the proud words Tom Vilsack offered in response to a question about Iowa's gay marriage ruling:

...I'm very proud of the Iowa Supreme Court. I should have to say that because I had a direct hand in appointing four of the seven justices of the Supreme Court.... I think they did the right thing, and they made the right decision.

Right on.

Now for the Bad: Biofuels and exports. He can't get enough of either -- I'll spare you the quotes since there wasn't much of substance in them. If there was a silver lining on ethanol, it's that Vilsack was long on talk of "second generation" biofuels that use non-food feedstocks with nary a mention of corn or of raising the ethanol blend-wall in gasoline, a development that's looking less and less likely anyway.

And the export issue is a complicated one. Part of Vilsack's job is shilling for Big Ag abroad (which is why it becomes so easy to shill for Big Ag at home as well). But what's good for exports of both agricultural outputs and inputs -- like a national system for tracking disease outbreaks in meat, advocating for greater biotech investments and encouraging massive over-production of meat, grain and dairy products -- isn't necessarily good for the domestic market (just ask the dairy farmers) or for the environment. But it's his job, so he does it.

As for the Ugly, I give you only this:

ROMANO: Let's talk about swine flu a little bit. I know that's also--

SECRETARY VILSACK: Oh, we're not going to talk about swine flu.

MS. ROMANO: Oh, it's part of your portfolio.

SECRETARY VILSACK: No, that's not the name of it. If you want to talk about H1N1, I'd be happy to talk about that.

Oh, Tom. Smithfield got your tongue? That exchange plus his recent full-throated defense of livestock CAFOs doesn't suggest we'll see a crackdown on the industries' worst practices any times soon. And thus does the Vilsack Sustainability Two-Step continue...

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