December 19, 2008

Ag Nominee Vilsack: Concerns on Ethanol, Biotech, Climate, CAFOs, Corporate Concentration, Hunger and Nutrition

Roni Neff, PhD

Roni Neff, PhD

Research and Policy Director

Center for a Livable Future

In response to the blog post below, it is worth expanding, to clarify the reasons many in the sustainable agriculture community – and others who are concerned about sustainability, justice and public health – are feeling let down by the choice of the new secretary of agriculture, even as we try to remain hopeful about the overall direction of change.  
First, Tom Vilsack is a major proponent of ethanol production. Industrially produced corn ethanol has been disvalued for climate change mitigation because it contributes more emissions than it reduces. Further, industrial corn ethanol production leads to substantial environmental impacts from fertilizer and pesticide use. But the impacts go beyond environmental, to corn ethanol’s destabilizing effect on food prices around the world. The former U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to food has termed corn ethanol “a crime against humanity.” As of early December, the U.N. reported that nearly 1 billion people around the world are now undernourished; these numbers have risen substantially  in the wake of the food price spikes. Estimates on ethanol’s role in the rise in food prices range from a few percent up to 3/4. Vilsack does support moving over the mid-to-long term towards other forms of ethanol.  But even with alternate ethanol sources, significant problems in terms of land use for energy vs. food, corporate concentration, and unsustainable production methods are likely to remain.
Second, there is extensive discourse in the sustainable agriculture community about Vilsack’s promotion of biotech, including genetic modification.  There is a lot of talk about him being the “agribusiness as usual” pick, supporting big agriculture and not necessarily smaller, sustainable or local.    I’ll let the links speak for themselves on that.   

Third, even in terms of climate, it is not clear to me whether the forms of agriculture-related greenhouse gas mitigation Vilsack may be expected to support are actually the right ones.  About half of food/agriculture related greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, so that should be the first priority.  The article cited in the blog post below, suggesting Vilsack, could be a climate ally, poo poos the notion of a “cow-tax” for the methane emissions.  In fact it is just that sort of economic incentive that should be considered, to address this critical source of agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions.

To my mind, the other top way to reduce agriculture related greenhouse gas emissions is to promote more carbon sequestration in soils and plant life, including through more sustainable forms of agriculture and keeping reserve lands from being planted. On-farm renewable energy is great, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.  Methane digesters, which turn the methane from cows into renewable energy (also mentioned as a possible Vilsack priority), sound like a great idea, but remain controversial in part because they provide an economic incentive for concentrating more animals in small spaces – just what we need, more CAFOs.

And food?  Nutrition?  If food and farm policy IS public health policy, then one would expect the incoming secretary of agriculture to mention food consumers somewhere in his initial news conference. Oops, forgot.   
That said, we can still try to be optimistic.  I liked this statement by Jim Harkness, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy: “As Iowa’s Governor, Vilsack has shown a fairly conventional perspective on agriculture-particularly related to biotechnology and the siting of factory farms-that seems to indicate a status quo approach.  But these are unconventional times, and with his charge to implement the national vision for agriculture of President-elect Obama, he has an opportunity to address the concerns of farmers-big and small, organic and conventional-and consumers, as well as environmental challenges facing the country.”
Here is hoping Vilsack can rise to the challenge.  In the meantime, we should look to getting good people into other positions within the USDA. (some concrete suggestions here)

Finally, it is worth noting that the Food Democracy Now petition, promoting Secretary of Agriculture candidates who would recognize the importance of sustainable agriculture and public health, generated over 57,000 signatures in just 10 days.  We’ve found our voice; let’s keep using it.



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