Barack Obama's nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for secretary of agriculture poses an interesting challenge to food policy progressives and environmentalists. It's likely that some of the same people who applauded the nomination of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as secretary of energy because it signaled a welcome return of respect for science in the White House will be disappointed with Vilsack because of his own fondness for science -- the science of biotechnology.
Make no mistake, the biotechnology industry and big agribusiness corporations are mighty pleased with the prospect of Vilsack as Ag secretary. Grist's Tom Philpott notes that "in 2001, the Biotechnology Industry Organization named him 'governor of the year' for his 'support of the industry's economic growth and agricultural biotechnology research'" and that Vilsack has supported several measures reducing the power of local governments to regulate agribusiness operations. Philpott also points us to the Des Moines Register, which features a handful of illuminating quotes.
"Tom Vilsack was one of the first governors to see the promise of biotechnology. He has a very balanced view of agriculture and understands its potential." -- Ted Crosbie, vice president of global plant breeding and director of Monsanto's Iowa operations
"We are pleased that we will be working with former Gov. Vilsack. He was always a good spokesman for soybean farmers, particularly on biotechnology issues. We are pleased that an Iowan will have the job." -- Kirk Leeds, chief executive officer of the Iowa Soybean Association
As the former governor of one of the nation's greatest corn-growing states, Tom Vilsack is well known as a big supporter of ethanol as an answer to the U.S.'s energy needs. So if you're a critic of biofuels -- for whatever reason -- you are not going to be happy with the Vilsack nomination. But that's only the most obvious point where environmentalists and Vilsack will part ways. There's also bound to be a major flare-up of disappointment from hardcore anti-biotech activists -- especially those who are opposed to genetic modification of natural organisms. And that's where it gets interesting. Because while progressives are very quick to lean on scientific consensus on such issues as global warming, there is also great distrust of scientific assertions that biotechnological advances offer hope for greater agricultural productivity and increased renewable energy output.
How the World Works falls somewhere in the middle of this: I am always skeptical of assertions from private profit-seeking corporations about the safety or sustainability of their own products. But I also believe that there is tremendous upside potential in agricultural biotechnology -- I don't think genetically modified crops are by definition unsafe or a crime against nature. How the World Works embraces the contradictions -- I like my organic vegetables at the local farmer's market and have no problem potentially driving a car fueled by ethanol made from the latest triple-stack-hybrid GM corn designed for maximum energy crop potential.
But the appointment of Vilsack doesn't offer much of an olive branch to my organic side. Vilsack's no Michael Pollan -- he's Big Ag's man, all the way. Biofuels and biotech are clearly going to be part of the Obama administration's path forward, and we can thus expect to hear plenty of teeth-gnashing from green-thinking food activists in the days to come. As Tom Philpott -- who is one of the very best writers on these issues -- concluded this morning:
The decision comes after a wave of hope that Obama might choose a less agribusiness-oriented candidate.
Consider that wave dashed.
UPDATE: Salon's War Room gets Michael Pollan's direct response to the Vilsack nomination.