Michael Pollan reacts to Vilsack at Agriculture

What America's top advocate for agricultural reform thinks about Obama's pick for Secretary of Agriculture.

Published December 17, 2008 5:25PM (EST)

About two weeks ago, some prominent activists for agricultural reform, including Michael Pollan, wrote a letter pleading with Barack Obama to break with tradition on agriculture policy.

Noting this letter, in which Pollan et al. suggested some potential appointees Obama could choose, I pointed out that they were fighting tradition, as “the job of agriculture secretary is often a token post for a Farm Belt politician, who presides over a department largely interested in the interests of agribusiness.”

Well, now Obama has chosen former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for the post, about as Farm Belt politician as it gets. Here’s what Pollan told Salon about the appointment:

Am I thrilled? You know look, if I missed something, he didn’t use the word food in his comments this morning. His focus is very much on production and agriculture. His record in Iowa does not give much one much reason to believe he’s going to bring a reformist agenda to the Department of Agriculture. Though there are some glints of light in that record. He’s shown some interest in developing local food economies in Iowa, which is encouraging. He’s in favor of capping subsidies in a serious way and moving the savings to conservation. The fact that he’s Tom Harkin’s pick gives me some grounds for hope.

But, Pollan noted, Vilsack presided over a huge expansion of confined animal feeding operations, and is very close to the biotech industry.

He was biotech governor of the year. And he has very close relations to Monsanto. As with every other pick, the focus is on the Nixon-in-China scenario, the hopeful fantasy, which is that these people will be able to drive reform in their bureaucracies -- that's the story of this Cabinet. Whether that comes true or not, we’re just going to have to wait and see.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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