In with the New?

In with the New?

Not Big Ag

It’s a new year, so here’s to a good one. Towards the end of 2008, U.S. president-elect Barack Obama filled out his cabinet. Among his last picks was former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. The buzz about the appointment is mixed: some say he is a friend of small farmers, and has expressed dismay at the consolidation of agriculture and the rapid growth of factory farms, even though they populate the landscape across Vilsack’s state. Other observers expressed something akin to dismay, seeing in Vilsack’s past policy positions and actions worrying signs of ready acceptance of genetically-modified crops and resistance, when Iowa’s governor, to factory farms anywhere in the U.S. being subject to anti-pollution laws.

Whether or not Vilsack will help bring about the vast change that most just, sustainable food advocates view as essential for U.S. agriculture and food policy can’t be known yet (and, of course, he’s not even confirmed). In response to a New York Times editorial about Vilsack’s appointment, I sent the following letter, urging a recognition of the global implications of U.S. food and farm policies. Here’s the text. Happy New Year.

Dear Editors:

Re “Fixing Agriculture” (editorial, December 19, 2008), you note that Agriculture Secretary-designate Tom Vilsack will have much to do to reverse the consolidation of the U.S.’ agriculture sector and its emphasis on mass production at all costs. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also has a mandate to market U.S. farm products around the world. This has led to what you describe as the U.S.’ “sterile landscape of factory farms, broken towns and endless miles of row crops like corn and soybeans” becoming, increasingly, global phenomena. More and more people are being marketed the unhealthy Western diet, which comes with the cruel, polluting, and climate-warming industrial systems that allow tens of thousands of animals to be raised in intense confinement in a single facility’courtesy of U.S. agribusiness supported by the USDA. This trend, too, must be arrested. Let’s hope Mr. Vilsack is the one (along with his new boss, President-elect Obama) to do it.