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Questions Answered, Questions Raised PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Friday, 02 January 2009
AFF Sentinel Vol.6#1

President-elect Obama's secretary of agriculture nomination only answered some questions. Will some of attorney and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack's contradictory positions combined with Obama's contradictions result in ag policy guided by political expediency or principle?

Vilsack is apparently not the radical "reformer" some activist and back-to-the-past groups favored to convert USDA into an organic food and alternative farming agency. But he has referred to "transforming traditional farm policy" to encourage greater "diversity in agriculture."

Business economics have proven that diversity -- though politically correct - is often counter to efficiency, low cost production and optimal use of resources in production or manufacturing. Diversity means turning farms into our grandfathers' general farms that raised several kinds of grains, a laundry list of livestock and their own garden. We see no advantage in inefficiently using land, water and climate to operations not suited to those factors merely to suit some diversity vision.

Some observers peg Vilsack as open to agribusiness interests and agricultural biotechnology. He was chairman of a Governor's Biotechnology Partnership.

Yet at the announcement, Obama and Vilsack sounded somewhat less than mainstream.

Obama said he sees solutions to the nation's energy problems not in the oil fields but in farm fields. Vilsack did say he wanted to improve profits for farmers and ranchers and expand opportunity for rural communities. But he referred to "sustainable" production and America's "leadership" on climate change.

Vilsack has favored cutting commodity subsidies and channeling the money to improving environmental practices, the Chicago Tribune reported. Both Obama and Vilsack favor expensive solar and wind energy.

Vilsack has referred to the U.S. re-establishing its "moral leadership" on global warming. Yet he was co-chairman of a Council on Foreign Relations climate change taskforce that recommended phasing out subsidies for mature biofuels (corn-based ethanol) and reducing imported ethanol tariffs. But the New York Times characterized both Obama and Vilsack as strong advocates for combating global warming.

Vilsack has a fairly balanced view of the pluses and minuses of corn-based ethanol. He realizes there is no level playing field for corn-based ethanol with blending subsidies and tariffs on imports and that petroleum-based inputs are intrinsic to corn production. But he expresses concern about greenhouse gases from corn production.

In fact, Vilsack wholly supports a cap-and- trade system on carbon dioxide emissions, a system that would artificially and arbitrarily penalize businesses that produce anything -- if they use electricity or fossil fuel. So agriculture could get penalized on one hand by a vindictive scheme to punish production and then sell carbon "credits" on the other hand.

We hope Vilsack is not still in favor of deceptive, contrived cap-and-trade schemes. Will he continue to endorse producing 25 percent of the nation's energy from renewable sources by 2025? Does he still think climate change is one cause for forest fires?

Iowa's Sen. Chuck Grassley said Vilsack has an appreciation for Midwestern small family farm issues, which Grassley represents as different from those of "mega-producers" in the Southeast and California.

One veteran observer quoted Mary Kay Thatcher, an AFBF lobbyist, that Vilsack's views are "closely aligned with President-elect Obama's." (Free marketers wince here.)

Obama has supported United Farm Workers' efforts to unionize feedyards. He favors restrictions on which Americans are allowed to own cattle, banning companies from simultaneously owning packing plants and cattle operations. Vilsack is on record favoring prohibiting packer ownership of livestock, opposing "direct vertical integration."

How beholden will Vilsack be to Harkin? Days before the appointment was announced, Vilsack said he mustn't be under consideration because he'd heard from nobody. Harkin publicly expressed disappointment. Suddenly, Vilsack's in. It's hard to believe Obama's team didn't consider Harkin's comments or Harkin was not responsible for Vilsack's consideration.

Activist groups favoring a total "reform" of agriculture were unhappy with Vilsack's appointment, claiming he was too friendly with "corporate" agribusiness. But any secretary who favors confiscating private property rights from cattlemen or packers opposes the most innovative and consumer- oriented producers, feeders, packers, retailers and restaurateurs. Proposed legislation would have hobbled or destroyed beef alliances, alternative marketing agreements, branded conventional and natural programs and reduced meat production quality and efficiency.

Further, intentionally seeking to penalize and increase costs for energy producers, and, in turn, for agricultural producers, would damage agriculture's profitability and global competitiveness.

We hope that incoming secretary Vilsack will recognize some of these proposals as damaging to consumers, farmers and ranchers and not listen to recidivist Luddites masquerading as "reformers."

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Last Updated ( Friday, 06 March 2009 )
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