Monday, November 17, 2008

Tom Vilsack May Not Be The Right Person to Lead the USDA

Tom Vilsack may not be the right person for head of the USDA.

He is a probably good man who has been on the right side of many issues. He served as the governor of Iowa from 1998 to 2006 and currently is of counsel in the Dorsey Trial group in Des Moines. As part of his bio at the firm, he boasts being a Distinguished Fellow of the Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products (aka BIGMAP) at Iowa State University. BIGMAP generally opposes laws and regulations what would trigger regulatory oversight for acts of genetic engineering, and believes that government regulation in and of itself may "close the door" on future innovations that might benefit society and the environment. In other words, BIGMAP prefers that the biotech and genetic engineering industries self-regulate. Vilsack is also widely thought of as a friend of Monsanto.

He showed courage several years back when as governor or Iowa he vetoed a law passed by Iowa’s legislature that would have prohibited Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from establishing air quality standards for CAFOs stricter than the federal government’s standard. That law would have also precluded the Iowa DNR from establishing standards for airborne substances for which the federal government had left a legal void.

Vilsack did the right thing. He vetoed the law, but then he recommended a weak 30 part per billion (ppb) one-hour standard for hydrogen sulfide as a compromise; a standard weaker than states surrounding Iowa. Although Minnesota also had a 30 part per billion standard, it was for a 30-minute exposure time, not an hour.

Also, in 2001,when the EPA proposed changing the definition of a CAFO by decreasing the number of animal units that triggers an NPDES permit, Vilsack (writing for the National Governor’s Association) opposed that re-definition because of the burden on states in issuing, monitoring and enforcing NPDES permits. He gave no concern for health or environmental issues.

Vilsack also challenged the EPA’s authority to regulate CAFOs in areas that “might not” discharge into waters of the United States, in effect permitting CAFOs in arid parts of the country to avoid EPA regulations.

Vilsack also opposed other common sense changes proposed by the EPA. See Vilsack’s CAFO defense letter (National Governors Association).

He also has a history of supporting other CAFO-related laws, and has not always been on the right side of the issue. As a corn-state governor, he may have a pre-disposition toward continuing corn state subsidies, and may be less than zealous in slowing the growth of the corn-based food economy.

Finally, Vilsack needs to disclose where he stands on GMO foods and genetically engineered plants and seeds. Does he support mandatory labeling of GM foods? Will he support pending legislation to ban Terminator Seed (GURT) technology where plants yield sterile seed so that they can not be replanted for future harvests? Will he support legislation that voids retrictions on seed saving by farmers? Will his relationship with Monsanto color his judgment on these issues?

David Axelrod helped run Vilsack’s gubernatorial campaign in 1998, and was Vilsack’s long-time media consultant. Perhaps he is not the right person to screen the candidate? Perhaps food activists can play more of a role in Vilsack’s vetting? Perhaps Obama can avoid making his first big blunder?

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